As millennials and members of Gen Z entered the workforce, the relationship between “purpose” and “work” has become an important theme for organizations seeking to hire and retain the best. Purpose may be an overused and loosely defined term, but in the context of work, it encompasses all the values that drive people’s choices, actions and attitudes — from wider social and environmental goals, to professional and personal objectives such as a healthy work-life balance.
Helping employees fulfill their purpose at work, while more important than ever, remains a highly elusive endeavor. In late 2021, we conducted a study to explore the purposes that motivate younger generations of workers, and the extent to which employers are delivering purposeful experiences. The picture that emerged should spur business leaders to reexamine their playbooks.
With no end in sight to growing expectations for purpose at work, our research revealed steps businesses can take to close the existing gap.
Our study makes it clear that employees are often unaware of their employer’s efforts in many areas of purpose. For example, more than one in five respondents couldn’t say whether their organization’s performance metrics were aligned with its vision and values; a similar number said they didn’t understand their company’s mission, while more than one in four weren’t sure whether a realistic long-term plan was in place to achieve carbon neutrality.
It’s hard to overstate the negative effects of such a lack of employee knowledge. Employees who don’t have a holistic picture of the business they work for will ultimately feel disengaged and struggle to think strategically about the opportunities and challenges the business faces. Further, they’ll fail to see the company’s wider purpose beyond the bottom line and even how their job can help them fulfill their personal purposes.
Companies developing a communication strategy to close the purpose gap must start by asking themselves, “What don’t our young workers understand about our corporate purpose?” and “What don’t we understand about their personal purpose?” In addition, they must do the following:
The age of micromanagement is dead, or should be. Young employees will not achieve the purposeful work they crave — including their highest personal priorities of finding passion for what they do and having a healthy work-life balance — if they are constantly monitored on what they do and how they do it.
In a hybrid workplace, micromanagement can take an even greater toll on workers, prompting the feeling they are not trusted. Conversely, empowering team members with more autonomy to achieve business goals and contribute their ideas on a range of business-related areas will increase worker satisfaction, creativity and productivity.
Other guidelines for businesses to follow include:
Business leaders might initially believe it’s up to HR or the communications department to ensure younger employees understand the corporate purpose and the extent to which they’re able to live out their own personal purpose at work. But leadership must be at the heart of this effort, for two reasons. First, young workers are skeptical of the authenticity of their employer’s commitment to stated social and environmental goals.
Second, it’s up to leaders to make decisions in areas such as remote work and promotion policies that will ultimately allow young workers to fulfill their individual purposes at work. When creating these policies, leaders must have a profound understanding of the changing dynamics that affect the work and personal lives of their younger colleagues.
When we asked our respondents to identify the leadership traits that mattered most to them, flexibility came out on top, even above traditional (and still essential) characteristics, such as honesty and work competence.
While it’s logical for employees to value flexibility after almost two years of responding to pandemic-imposed needs, this trait may still not come as naturally to leaders themselves. When that is the case, leadership training may be necessary.
In addition, leaders need to: