In our Simply Irresistible model for the employee experience (aka employee engagement), we describe five core drivers of employee success: meaningful work, supportive management, fantastic environment, growth opportunity, and trust in leadership. In this article we’ll talk about the first, “meaningful work.”
While many employers think their goal at work is to “make people happy,” the reality is that most of us work for a reason: we want to spend our time contributing to others and creating something bigger than ourselves. This is the core concept behind meaningful work. When the work itself is empowering, when we feel we are in the right jobs, when we feel close to our team, and when we have enough time and resources to succeed—we can be happy.
Theresa Amabile, a Harvard Researcher, in the book The Progress Principle,1 describes her research studying the “work logs” of hundreds of employees. In her team’s assessments of a wide range of employees’ feelings about work, she concluded that one of the most valued experiences at work is “making progress toward a goal.” In other words, when you go home at night, do you feel that you truly accomplished something positive that day?
We break this element into four categories: autonomy, selection to fit, small teams, and time for slack. Autonomy simply means giving people the freedom to “add themselves” to the job. For example, if you are a retail clerk, you may want to wear certain flamboyant accessories added to your clothes, or treat people in a special way—bringing your own personal style and passion to work. A whole discipline called “job-crafting” has been created, describing how we all “craft our jobs” to be what we want. Think about your job—whether you’re an analyst, retail worker, leader, or manufacturing worker. When you can “craft your job” to do it the way you think is best, you probably feel better than ever. This whole principle of “autonomy” is a major practice of effective leadership, and many new managers struggle to “let people figure things out on their own.” Of course people should be given guidelines, rules, and strategies to follow, but research on productivity shows that when you give people supportive autonomy, they thrive. It’s the other side of the coin from a delegating style that the best leaders aspire to in developing their teams. The more leaders trust their team, the more they can delegate, and the more autonomy the team enjoys.
The second category is “selection for fit.” This is an enormously complex topic, but the simple message is this: are you in the job that feels right for you? Do you as a manager truly understand the “success drivers” of this job and why one person might succeed and another may fail? Do you have a process to source, recruit, and select people that you know are likely to succeed? The process of “accurate selection” may be the most important management practice in business (if you can’t hire the “right person” your whole operation will fail), and it is hard to do well. Many tools, studies, and assessment models are available—but the best solution may simply be to “study the high performers” and compare them to people who fail. You can learn “what works” this way. One of our clients, a retailer, studied the performance of cosmetic sales reps, for example, and found (contrary to some peoples’ assumptions) that good looks were not a driver of success: cognitive skills and rapid thinking were, however. Don’t assume that grade point average, school pedigree, or even where someone worked before is always relevant. Get under the covers and see what makes people succeed.
The third area we call “small teams,” and the simple story here is that people thrive in teams where they know each other, they have time together, and they are physically co-located. Yes of course we have lots of virtual collaboration tools: research has proven2 that people tend to spend far more time with people physically close to their desks, and this is why so many offices are now open; we have “pods” for teams to work in; and retail stores, sales offices, and other facilities are “smallish” to help bring people together. Companies have studied the performance of teams, and they find similar results: Trust, intimacy, openness, inclusion, respect for quality and expertise, and lots of feedback make teams effective. When the team works well, people can feel very close to their “team” and any problems in the rest of the company seem to go away.
The fourth area we call “time for slack.” Some people have incorrectly interpreted this to mean “time to goof off.” Not at all. The issue here is giving people “extra time” to fix things, learn, talk with each other, and just reflect on the work they are doing. Research done in Germany3, for example, shows that people who work more than 55–60 hours a day get no more work done than those who work 45–50 hours. “Overworking” people can backfire. People become unproductive, they make mistakes, and they don’t “clean up” and improve their work environment. Zeynep Ton,4 in the book Good Jobs, describes how retailers who have more staff per square foot (i.e., they pay more for payroll) far outperform their peers in profitability. Why? Because in these companies staff can help customers, rearrange products, clean the store, and cross-train each other to succeed. Making room for “unstructured time” allows employees to breathe, reflect, and improve the ways they work. Which takes us right back to autonomy, and the cycle continues.
“Meaningful work” is perhaps the most important part of the Simply Irresistible model. We hope this short article gets you thinking, and we will discuss the other elements in more articles to come.