This article is written by Lynn Thomas. A former tax attorney at Arthur Andersen,
Lynn Thomas brings the same rigor to her work now as an employee and client retention consultant. With more than 30 years’ experience, she uncovers why clients / employees come, stay, leave, refer, and cross-buy. Her unique, fully customized approach includes measurable and actionable steps toward cultivating a powerful, profitable, and relationship-centric company. Learn more about Lynn and Thomas Consulting, here.
Fourteen months (and counting) into the pandemic, most companies have realized that this is not business as usual. They have learned that employees expect and need much more from their employers than previously: to be actively listened to, skillfully guided, well-informed, authentically connected, and genuinely appreciated. The required interpersonal skill set to meet these needs continues to be challenging for many leaders.
Further, most leaders now realize that if profits alone are the sole reason for the company’s existence, many employees will leave. COVID unleashed devastating torrents of crises on humans around the world. In the face of this destruction, astute employers turned to their employees to help them survive, shifting their company culture and focus to one that is more human-principled and people-centric.
In short, organizational purpose must enrich the lives of its employees, customers, and broader community, in addition to turning a profit.
Okay, so employees want to work for companies that have a purpose they can support and that offer an opportunity to do things that matter to them. Does that mean companies need to follow suit?
The short answer: Yes.
Recent research finds that two-thirds of US employees say that COVID has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. Millennials are three times more likely to be reevaluating their work. Overall, 70% of employees expect their job to be a significant source of fulfilling their life’s meaning or purpose.
Taken together, this means that if your employees find meaning and purpose at work, the benefits to the company are numerous: people are more productive, healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay longer.
The opposite is true as well — those who don’t find purpose in your organization will look for it elsewhere, often leaving to work for competitors that are more in line with their life values. This kind of brain drain is not quickly remedied. Even among those who stick around, unhappy employees generate negative business outcomes: less commitment, satisfaction, pride, engagement, achievement, connection, and excitement.
Unfortunately, the list of steps required to help employees find meaning in their daily work is long. There are no easy answers. But there are some guidelines to keep in mind…
On a recent client project, I conducted extensive market research to identify what the client's top 20% of customers — those who generate 80% of the profits — wanted most from their business. Management believed the most important factors were friendly employees, multiple product options, and overall availability to respond to questions.
Frontline employees, however, had a strikingly different take. They said that what customers wanted most were knowledgeable and skilled employees, super-fast response times, and technology that could generate accurate answers. To management’s surprise, it was the frontline employees whose answers were almost identical to what their customers wanted!
The point is, without employee insights, management is flying blind. Individual managers need to develop deeper emotional and social connections with their employees to create psychological safety. This allows employees to speak honestly without fear of retribution.
Further, management needs to uncover what motivates each employee — to curiously probe for deeper responses, pinpoint the meaning their employees want from their work, uncover their ideas on how to succeed, and fundamentally reveal what will delight and retain them!
This goes beyond the now antiquated metric of “employee satisfaction,” a concept that has been shown to have little correlation with customer or employee retention, let alone profit. Rather, what we are talking about here is “hyper-empowering” your people. Involve them in your data gathering and decision-making; push the locus of control to your frontline employees; allow those who are closest to your customers to provide you with in-depth, detailed, and accurate knowledge.
For many employees, being more engaged and involved in decision-making will bring immense meaning and purpose to their lives.
More than ever, the stances that a company takes (or doesn’t take) regarding social justice or political issues can impact where people choose to work. Employees feel good about being part of organizations that make or endorse what they view as positive changes in our society. Enlightened organizations understand this and are not shy about going public.
Witness the recent decision by Robert Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball:
"I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year's All-Star Game and MLB draft. Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. Fair access to voting continues to have our game's unwavering support."
Similarly, in response to the many videotape and police body camera recordings of police brutality against black people, Action for Racial Equity, which is a fellowship of over 100 CEOs in diverse industries, wrote a letter to Congress on April 1, 2021 to advance meaningful police reform. Part of the letter stated:
“Its mission is to identify, develop and promote scalable and sustainable public policies and corporate engagement strategies that will address systemic racism, social injustice and improve societal well-being.”
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that to have a thriving company, particularly during hard times, employees must feel empowered and ready to tackle complex and volatiles issues. They must also feel a sense of purpose in their work.
Employers, in turn, must deeply engage with their people to create an innovative, enjoyable, and purpose-driven workplace — one that puts humans at the center of the company. When leaders strive to make employees happier, their jobs easier, and the work more meaningful, employees will stay on and take exquisite care of customers. Everyone can win!