Learning & Development

Purpose and Making Work Matter Must Be a Strategic Priority for HR in 2023

Employees spend 40+ hours a week working. This equates to more time at work than doing anything else, including parenting, interacting with loved ones, and engaging in personal passions. Over the past 3 years, employee engagement and, ultimately, retention have decreased sharply in the wake of the Great Resignation and the quiet quitting movements, and through these periods, we have learned just how crucial it is for employees to feel valued.

In its November 2022 Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being report, the U.S. Surgeon General listed mattering at work as one of its five essential initiatives to strengthen workplace well-being. The report cited research that indicates that finding meaning and purpose in work increases an employee’s physical and mental health by reducing the risk for health complications such as heart attacks and stroke and by increasing an employee’s motivation and sense of positivity. For businesses, the report cited research arguing that employees who find meaning in their work are more productive and more innovative, and they are more likely to remain with their organizations.

Today’s employees need to find purpose in their work, but how can companies help them identify that purpose? Companies must know the answers to two fundamental questions: “Why do we exist?” and “What broader societal purpose do we serve?” The answers to these questions must be authentic. Authenticity in a company’s purpose is apparent when purpose is threaded into the organization’s strategy and the everyday execution of that strategy in the form of the company’s actions, decisions, and choices.

In 2023, one of HR’s strategic priorities must be to help employees discover that purpose—the “why” inherent in their work. HR has a real opportunity to improve workplace well-being by addressing the key aspect of mattering at work through making the connection between job role and purpose more explicit for employees. HR teams can help employees connect the dots by taking three actions:

  1. Making purpose more visible to employees through “purpose communication campaigns”; 
  2. Adding a bullet point linking the job to purpose in every job description; and
  3. Spotlighting how individuals across functions and at all levels fulfill the purpose and highlighting examples of specific individuals in company newsletters, company social media posts, intranet communications, etc.

Making Purpose More Visible to Employees

To reignite employee engagement and motivation, incorporate internal “purpose communication campaigns” emphasizing that all employees matter into 2023 plans. The objective of the purpose campaign is to communicate to employees that the abilities, skills, energy, insights, opinions, creativity, and motivation they bring every day to their job matter because the sum of those efforts helps the organization fulfill its greater purpose.The purpose campaign also signals to employees that they are visible and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

To start, consider deploying a short pulse survey asking employees about organizational purpose. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = mostly disagree, 3 = somewhat agree, 4 = mostly agree, and 5 = strongly agree), have them rate the following statements:

  • My job is meaningful to me.
  • My work gives me a sense of purpose.
  • I understand my organization’s purpose.
  • I understand how my job fits with everyone else’s.
  • Everyone’s job here is necessary to fulfill the organization’s purpose.
  • At work, we share a common cause.

There is a maximum score of 30 and a minimum score of 6. The higher the collective average score, the stronger the link between the average employee and the organizational purpose. The results of the survey will help HR teams pinpoint how well employees understand the organization’s purpose and how strongly they feel their work contributes to the larger cause. Most importantly, the insights will shed light on which of these areas needs to be reinforced through the purpose campaign.

Linking Each Job to the Organization’s Purpose

If purpose is threaded into the execution of a company’s strategy, then it is woven into the jobs of its workforce.And yet, when we look at the average written job description, we likely struggle to link the job to organizational purpose. Establishing this link should not be challenging. Purpose can be found in job roles across all functions and in all sectors. HR must take the extra step of adding a bullet point to every single job description linking the job to the organization’s purpose.There is no more tangible way to connect the dots between job role and company purpose than to incorporate supporting language in the formal job description.

As Walmart states, “delivering value to our customers, creating economic opportunity for associates and suppliers, strengthening local communities, and enhancing the environmental and social sustainability of our business and product supply chains” address important societal needs. Walmart has backed up its purpose statements in its everyday actions and operations. Even an organization of Walmart’s scale, with its 2.3 million associates, is in a position to link every job role to purpose.

Spotlighting How Employees Fulfill Organizational Purpose

An organizationwide purpose campaign can be executed at any scale, from a zero-cost option leveraging town halls and internal communication channels like newsletters and social media to holding companywide or regional in-person events. Regardless of scale or the delivery mechanism, HR teams have an opportunity to continuously showcase the work of individuals from various departments and across all functions in purpose campaign communications to increase visibility for and connection to the initiative. HR teams must also encourage managers to speak with their teams regularly about the importance of their team and each individual member’s role and, importantly, how this work contributes to the organization’s shared purpose.

These actions will help employees understand exactly how and why their work matters. What follows is a positive impact on productivity, innovation, engagement, and retention. Building a sense of shared purpose and a culture of working toward a common societal goal adds meaning to work, generates pride, and fuels motivation, all while reducing physical and mental stress. If organizations and HR leaders care about how their employees feel about the work they do every day, they will help them establish this important connection, and everyone will be stronger for it.  

Heide Abelli is an accomplished executive who has held senior leadership positions at leading educational technology and training providers such as Skillsoft and Harvard Business Publishing, where she developed award-winning, groundbreaking corporate training solutions. She is a seasoned veteran of product development, innovation, and product management in the fields of corporate training and HR tech. Additionally, she is a globally recognized subject matter expert in the areas of leadership, management, general business skills, the unique skills required for success in the digital economy, employee learning and development, and effective corporate training practices. Abelli is also currently a teaching faculty member of the Boston College Carroll School of Management, an independent consultant in the ed tech sector, and the cofounder of an entrepreneurial venture in the employee performance support space called SageX Inc.

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