The pandemic may have put the meaning and structure of paid work under the spotlight over last two years, but there’s nothing new about the search for purpose at work. Having a job that’s about more than clocking in and out has been a recurrent theme for workers since time immemorial.
Covid-19 just stopped this generation in their tracks long enough to remind those caught up in the rat race that there might be more to life.
Purpose is personal, but for many people work is a huge part of it. It defines them, to a greater or lesser extent, and the collision between home and working lives during Covid-19 has stirred up probing questions for many people about where they go from here.
"I think it's important to distinguish between purpose and drive. Drive is more akin to motivation and what gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us going. Purpose is a deeper reason, the 'why' doing something matters," says personal and organisational performance consultant Dr Laura Watkins, co-author of The Performance Curve.
Watkins adds that, at the start of the pandemic, many people suddenly saw “in stark relief, how their work was not as meaningful to them as they’d like it to be, and that the trade-offs they were making no longer stacked up”, she says.
“Some of these people have now taken action. They’ve changed jobs, changed their role at work or changed how they do their work and what they pay attention to. For example, getting more involved in developing the next generation or in helping the business become more environmentally conscious.
“Others have rebalanced work versus personal life, changing to a mostly remote contract or maybe even moving to a sunnier climate.”
Bill Schaninger, a partner in McKinsey's Philadelphia office, spoke about this search for purpose during a podcast last year when he said: "I think it [the pandemic] has really brought to the fore 'well, what exactly does work mean to me? What do I have to get out of it? Is it merely a cheque that facilitates the rest of my life or is it something more purposeful' – using that word quite explicitly."
He adds: “Can we put a finer point on starting with the person and leaving behind the arrogance that the organisation thinks it dictates to people what their purpose is? That is just nonsense. Individuals decide what their purpose is. It’s the organisation’s role and opportunity to figure out how to help people bring that purpose to a finer point of what matters to them.”
The benefits of getting individual purpose right go beyond retention. It's also significant and self-reinforcing in terms of improved employee satisfaction
Organisations that fail to step up to the challenge of helping employees find their purpose risk a brain drain or, as McKinsey puts it in an April 2021 commentary: "Help your employees find purpose or watch them leave. Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will."
And, with some sectors of the Irish jobs market now firmly weighted in favour of candidates with itchy feet, that’s timely advice. However, the benefits of getting individual purpose right go beyond retention. It’s also significant and self-reinforcing in terms of improved employee satisfaction and organisational performance.
Purpose is as individual as a fingerprint so, while an organisation can never control it, it can have an influence on it, especially if it can help employees to feel their contribution is making a difference. McKinsey says employers, “need to meet employees where they are in order to help them optimise their sense of fulfilment from work . . . Purposeful employees try harder and are more apt to innovate . . . (and as) many people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, so creating space for the little things to become purposeful can quickly snowball into better work experiences and better work environments for everyone.”
Much has been written about the search for purpose at work, but there are a few recurrent themes that don’t change much from generation to generation. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, which looks at what motivates us, he maintains that motivation is largely intrinsic but driven by three key elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. This translates as a fundamental need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better.
“We encourage people to place more attention on their sense of purpose in times of uncertainty or difficulty, because it can help them to thrive and survive,” Watkins says. “Being deliberate about how we apply our purpose over shorter periods helps a lot both practically and mentally and many of our clients translate their bigger sense of purpose into yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly and even daily goals.”
Watkins adds that many people started 2022 feeling stuck and deflated because, with Covid uncertainty still hanging around, we’re not in control of our lives.
“If you are feeling this way then focusing on what’s meaningful for you can be really helpful in moving forward,” she says. “With the instabilities and constraints of the current context, you might need to dial back or adjust what this is. It doesn’t need to be a big save-the-world purpose, it can be something much more achievable.
“But taking charge of something and making progress will give you a sense of personal control (self-efficacy) which is settling for our brains.”