How to build meaningful work for your people

What do we mean by ‘meaningful’ work and how can organisations provide it? Degreed’s Annee Bayeux looks at factors of autonomy, complexity and recognition

Let’s face it, we’re all looking for that dream job. The one which brings meaning, purpose and growth to our lives. Yet, in many cases, our work is falling short. In fact, only 20% of employees globally are engaged at work. And that’s bad news for employees and their employers. Disengaged employees are known to be less productive, less satisfied, and less likely to remain with their employer for a long time.

Defining meaningful work

More than anything else, people everywhere are looking to have meaningful work in this moment of time, but what exactly is ‘meaningful’ work? According to author and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, meaningful work consists of three distinct qualities:

  1. Autonomy: having control of our choices.
  2. Complexity: being able to constantly improve and be challenged.
  3. Recognition: a direct connection between effort and reward. That payoff can be financial, spiritual, social, and so forth.

Using this as a guide, HR leaders and people managers can bring meaningful work into their people’s day-to-day lives. As a Chief Learning Strategist, I see this list as a challenge to shift the learning and growth culture of an organisation.

Autonomy

It makes sense that anyone stuck doing rote tasks under the constant gaze of a controlling manager is not going to have much job satisfaction. There’s no fun in having little-to-no control of what you’re working on, where you work, when you work, or your career trajectory. Instead, offering greater autonomy in the workplace will boost engagement, trust, loyalty, and work quality.

So how can you build greater autonomy in your workforce? A few ways to do this include:

  • Providing greater flexibility for people to choose their working hours and environment. Some people work better in quiet spaces while others prefer the hustle and bustle of a workplace or cafe. Likewise, giving greater control over work hours can help people fit their work around other commitments, like family or personal development.
  • Offering stretch assignments that align with goals and interests. This empowers employees to seek out experiences that will build their careers and skills, while also inspiring them in work that they are interested in.
  • Offer volunteer opportunities. Similar to the above, having the opportunity to volunteer for a cause close to an employee’s heart actually has a boost effect on productivity. Studies have shown that allowing employees to help others, either externally or internally, on ‘company time’ increases productivity over time. Degreed’s traditional ‘Good Deeds Day’ gives four days a year to your favourite cause, where many employees choose to help upskill, mentor or coach others during their time off.
  • Provide opportunities to teach, mentor or coach others. People who are passionate about their work and who have built a wealth of experience, will naturally want to share this knowledge with others. Like volunteering, the intrinsic pleasure of helping others helps to keep us happy and motivated. Don’t forget about reverse mentoring, where new arrivals can help bring fresh ideas and expertise as mentors and coaches, just like your seniors. Finally, keep it democratic – using technology to level the playing field, opportunities to coach, mentor or be coached should be transparent and available for everyone, not just a ‘happy few’.  

Complexity

Complexity is… well, hard. Having complex work ensures that your mind grows constantly. Helping your people to feel challenged (but in control) will enable them to discover their passions and shape their career journeys. The first step is to understand what makes your people tick. What are their interests and career goals? By understanding what motivates them, you can offer learning and career opportunities that help them achieve their goals. At the same time, this challenges them every day, especially if those learning and career activities are done in the flow of work.

Two other things to consider when developing complexity in the workday: it needs to be challenging, but not so much so that it causes constant stress. This is how ‘stretch assignments’ earned their name – for seeking to find the sweet spot between your comfort zone and learning a new skill. Find the right balance between tricky things and activities that your people are confident and experienced in.

The second thing is to provide the psychological safety to fail. My first boss once told me: ‘Annee, you can make as many mistakes as you want, as long as you only make each one once’. This tongue-in-cheek expression really teaches you the value of learning from mistakes. Building a culture focused on growth, instead of blame, will be a key factor in managing complexity. You don’t get success without some failures along the way, and failing can provide people with valuable lessons for the future. Communicate that it’s ok to fail as long as there are learnings from it.

Recognition

It’s hard for me to mention recognition without mentioning rewards, but here my intention is distinct. So much of the joy of success comes from seeing how far you’ve come and equally importantly, to feel that others around you appreciate your efforts and passion. Recognition comes in many forms, from a manager recognising the great work of a team member, to colleagues who thank team members, to winning an award for a complex project. Everyone feels great to be recognised.

There are many options to help build recognition into your people’s workday.

  • Track your team’s efforts, recognising those who have gone above and beyond, and report back on progress against set goals. Allow your stars to mentor or coach others.
  • Incorporate regular feedback into your culture. This could be as informal as a quick coffee or walk, or more formally during regularly scheduled team and individual feedback meetings.
  • Remember that rewards offer proof of recognition! Consider gamification, badges, and other reward-systems that provide incentives for someone to reach specific goals and results. Peer-recognition systems can also help to recognise someone’s contribution and teamwork across a wider organisation.

Remember to recognise all forms of effort at work, whether that’s completing a difficult task, helping another department, or learning a new skill.

A thriving and motivated workforce

Building meaning into everyone’s workday will pay off with greater retention, engagement, and productivity. Your people will feel motivated to achieve their best work because it feeds their sense of purpose and passion. This creates an environment where everyone thrives, can bring their best selves to work, and who are in it for the long term.

Annee Bayeux is Chief Learning Strategist at upskilling platform, Degreed. She has 20+ years in L&D, M&A, Talent, and HR Technologies with Global 2000 companies, such as Bosch Automotive, Alstom, General Electric, and Danone.

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