How to … create meaning at work

by 06 Feb 2007

Why is it important?

A recent survey by human capital management consultancy Penna revealed that one in four workers say their job plays a vital part in who they are, while an equivalent number of managing directors and directors believe they get more meaning from work than from their home life and friends.

Even if work doesn’t define us, it is still a major influencing factor in our overall happiness. Having a connection with, and a sense of belonging to, where we work, and a feeling that what we do is worthwhile and makes a difference, are vital if work is to have any real meaning beyond a monthly pay cheque.

Restoring or finding new meaning at work can re-energise your state of mind and career – and it is within our power to achieve it.

Where do I start?

Finding meaning at work entails an up close and personal examination of your values and priorities. Reflect on what you expect from work, what truly motivates you and ask yourself some searching questions: Do you feel satisfied and appreciated? Are you committed and proud of what you do? Do you want to be doing what you’re doing in five years’ time?

If offered redundancy now, would you take it? Remember your value system will change as you progress in your career, so it is important to take account of this.

Be clear about values

Feeling that you don’t belong or that you cannot find a connection at work may stem from a lack of trust or ethical problem with your present organisation. If your organisation’s values are not in tune with yours, or you feel uneasy about the way it conducts its business, you may decide to search for a new employer.

Make the effort to investigate any potential new employer thoroughly, as what it espouses as its values aren’t always the reality, claims Gary Browning, Penna’s managing director.

“Talk to some current employees to find out what the company is really like,” he advises.

Get engaged

Research has found that there is a direct correlation between meaning and being involved in ‘good work’. Establish how happy you are with how you perform? Can you improve? Find ways to make your work more engaging. Identify what interests you in life – such as having more direct contact with people – and think of ways to incorporate it into your current role.

Explore opportunities for placements or projects that might bring fresh challenges and stimulation. Above all, make sure what you do ties in with your long-term career aims.

Trade down

Downshifting has become synonymous with selling up and starting a smallholding, but it can mean simply working fewer hours to fit in other interests. Making space and time for volunteering, for instance, may be enough to fill a void. Consider portfolio working, which may be more effective in satisfying both your personal and professional needs.

Use of career breaks and sabbaticals are also likely to become more widespread if the retirement age is raised.

Create meaning for others

As an HR professional, you can play a large part in creating meaning for others in your organisation which, in turn, can heighten your sense of worth. Impress upon line managers – and the board – the importance of organisations following through when it comes to stated company values. Give employees every opportunity to do a ‘good job’ by ensuring training and development strategies are in place and institute coaching and mentoring.

Become a corporate social responsibility and ethics champion. Foster a culture of transparency and open communication at all levels.

Second opinion on creating meaning at work

By Gary Browning, managing director, Penna

What advice would you offer to someone looking to build a career with meaning?

You must be completely self-aware. Think about your personal objectives - the legacy you want to leave in your current role and in your career. It is essential that these are your own deeply held convictions if your career plan is to work and provide you with meaning.

I was amazed that only 14 per cent of people in our survey consider the organisation's values when they are looking for a new job; those people who do not, tend to regret it later. Senior directors will often shape the values of the organisation, but most people don't have that option.

What should you do if you're unsure whether you're in the right job?

If you don't know whether you're in the right job, it's probably the wrong one. Could you change your role? This is easier in larger organisations. But first be sure you are with the right employer. Are your values similar to those of the organisation? Is there anything in company policy you are ethically uncomfortable with? If there is a gap, can it be bridged internally? Or if it is too wide, you may have to move organisations to find a better fit. Ask yourself: "Am I proud to be associated with this organisation?". One in five people in our survey was not.

Are there new theories on creating meaning at work?

The Penna survey confirms that meaning at work is real, that employees are seeking it, and that it is here to stay. Talent retention and workforce engagement are, and will be, the issues of the next decade. We have established that where there is a 'meaningful relationship' between employee and employer, organisations can deal with these issues more effectively.

Organisations are organic, they can have vision and ethos, and values which can be shaped and shared by employees. More than just informing them, it is about involving them. If work has meaning, 55 per cent of employees report higher motivation, 42 per cent say they will be more loyal and 32 per cent will be more proud of their organisation.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com

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