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Purpose at Work – More Important than Ever?

Recent discussions have prompted me to look into whether purpose at work is increasingly important. The question is: Is more purposeful / meaningful work more important when considering joining / staying with an employer than previously? And more specifically, is it more important than pre-Covid?

It’s an opinion I’d heard expressed, So I started to dabble for data. But what I saw was a number of articles that suggested they were data-driven, but were really thought pieces.

First findings – it makes sense, but is purpose more important?

These articles tend to take the same kind of angle, that Covid was such a shock to people, how we interact and work, that it’s caused a re-evaluation of priorities.

So there are pieces like this from, Gartner who say just that: “The pandemic and subsequent economic and political volatility has forced everyone to examine their choices about how they spend their time, energy and social capital. Employees seek to gain more value from their jobs.” They may have the data to demonstrate that, but they don’t share it here.

The Harvard Business Review: state that: “Observers have suggested that the many deaths and instances of serious illness brought about by the pandemic have caused people to reconsider the role of work in their lives. …. Women have been affected more than men, and younger age groups more than older ones.”

Which sounds data-driven, but is possibly given away by the “Observers have suggested…”

And there’s things like this from the WEF “A sense of purpose is essential for businesses today” who say “The beauty of ‘corporate purpose’ is that it disentangles itself from the complexities of business. It rises above management edicts and semantics aside, to distil why a company should exist. It is a clear declaration of the impact the company hopes to have on the world.” Which is great but doesn’t go on to show real-world importance, or rise in importance.

This from McKinsey absolutely IS data-driven: “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.” They found - in 2021 – that: “Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were reevaluating work.”

This was 2021, so mid-point of the pandemic, we’ve had the original shock, now we’re considering the what-next.

And I can believe that – at that point – many were considering their relationship with work. Was it fulfilling? Did they get back as much as they put in? Could they do something different and more valuable?

Did the post-Covid world pan out as we expected?

What I suspect is that this didn’t quite happen.

Personally, I was hopefully that there might be some lasting cultural changes after the pandemic. That we’d all be a little more excellent to each other.

As a small example, I wondered if attitudes to minor, contagious illnesses might change. We had after all learned how to mitigate against spread of disease at little to no inconvenience to ourselves. Purely from my own observations, I’d suggest that attitudes to hygiene and consideration of contagion are pretty much back where they started. This is the current UK health advice for schoolchildren: “It's fine to send your child to school with a minor cough or common cold.”

I don’t have the data for this, but I suspect that once vaccines allowed freedoms to be restored, as a society, we rushed to embrace those freedoms.

We had promised ourselves we’d rethink our lives, but life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And so, we settled back to roughly where we were.

The exception obviously is flexible, hybrid and remote working. And it’s exceptional because that change happened during the pandemic. For many, it didn’t feel like an imposition, it felt like an opportunity. But that’s well-documented already (that said, this is worth a read comparing changes in UK and US attitudes)

It’s not always easy to see the patterns

We’re looking to understand how important Purpose is, and if it’s become more important.

What’s frustrating in these kinds of desk-review exercises is that studies and surveys run across multiple years often do one, or both, of two maddening things:

· They don’t report on change over time and /or the previous years’ findings are no longer available. Of course, there’s value in them retaining the previous data for themselves. But there’s lots of value in reporting on change over time. In many cases more than commenting on a single year, because it adds depth of context.

· They change the questions. Often when looking at the same topic, which is just infuriating.

So, what can we see?

But let’s examine what we can find.

In this work, Deloitte have had a good look, and a few things leap out. Firstly, employers will often talk a good game, they have a good and credible definition of their purpose, which is shared and understood. But sometimes they aren’t able to bring that to life in the working experience. I.e., you know what you should be working for, but you’re lost in the day-to-day. And the more junior/less responsible your role, the less you see the importance of purpose. All of which is important because: “employees who experience purpose in their daily work show higher levels of motivation and trust towards their employer”. In terms of has importance of purpose changed over time – what we do see is that importance of purpose decreases as respondents get older. So, “Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to take job decisions based on purpose.” Or, at least, they say they do. As with any research, it is better to draw conclusions from the actions rather than intentions. Are the youth of today flocking to tobacco or arms firms? Possibly not? Do companies that are primarily-profit motivated still attract younger generations? I don’t detect a crisis there. We can probably say that – given the choice between to otherwise-identical roles - younger people will more likely choose the more purposeful.

There is another finding that’s interesting though, which is a little tucked away: “It should be noted that employees seem to have a stronger affinity for issues that impact them directly, particularly salary, benefits and professional development”.

In other words, even if purpose has/will become more important – it perhaps isn’t a top priority. Perhaps it will never be. If we’re thinking about your employer brand, it looks like purpose may not be the sizzle, it may not even be the sausage.

Are others finding the same thing?

In the US, looking at one of Gallup’s G12 questions “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important”. The response to that has wobbled about it a bit, but not really changed since 2007.

BUT having trended upwards for a while it has taken a dip post-Covid. What we can possibly infer is that companies have stayed fairly still on purpose, but the importance has increased, So, perhaps people are less satisfied re: purpose now, and we see that dip. We don’t know that, but it’s plausible.

It fits with this from the CIPD in the UK, and the Good Work Index 2023. In particular: “Compared to 2019, workers today are less enthused about work, less likely to perceive their work as useful and more likely to see work as purely transactional – simply for the money.” So, something there has changed. It’s more work-to-live, than live-to-work; it’s less satisfying. However, again we see in the conclusion that other factors: flexible/hybrid working, wellbeing (especially financial) and developing skills are more important.

Taking a slightly different approach, over at OC Tanner they have an interesting take. “Employee sense of purpose” is one of their six “talent magnets.” That’s increased in importance in the last year and is now the most “magnetic” element over success, opportunity, appreciation, wellbeing and leadership. BUT it was also the strongest magnet in 2019, pre-Covid – purpose hasn’t leapt forward.

We also have an interesting snippet from New Possible’s What Workers Want Survey. Having Fulfilling and Engaging work is the third-top reason to stay at a company after Good Colleagues and Flexibility – but that same was true in their 2021 Survey. What they do find is that having “societal impact” has greatly increased in importance compared to pre-pandemic.

Another US Study lead by Purpose Under Pressure concludes that purpose unlocks recruitment and retention because it is – again –the third most important to employees. Their version is “ Company Has A Positive Impact On Society,” and this comes after Work-Life Balance and Salary/Compensation.

They do also find that: “While Purpose is understood – and highly valued – at the senior executive levels of business, it fails to have the same effect at other levels within organizations.” Lower-down the organisation, it’s not so powerful.

This study from Brookings Institution is interesting. They find that: “Our analysis shows that relatedness, which is about relationships at work, is the most important determinant of work meaningfulness.” In other words, the purpose comes out through the relationships you have.

Great Place to Work have found that: The following three questions will predict workplace turnover, regardless of generation or job type: 1) Are you proud of where you work? 2) Do you find meaning in your work? 3) Do you have fun at work? And: Harvard Business School (HBS) researchers, using Great Place To Work’s extensive database, found that companies whose employees feel a sense of purpose at work and believe their leaders set clear direction and expectation, outperform the stock market by 6.9%. It's another clear connection between purpose and engagement and therefore organisational performance

It all tells us purpose is important, but no more important, and probably not as important as other factors

There’s a link between purpose and employee motivation and engagement. But it’s not a top priority, and it doesn’t flow all the way down the hierarchy. It may be an increased desire for younger workers, but other than this, we don’t see consistent evidence that is generally a greater priority now than before the pandemic.

What we are getting hints of in the data, and what people seem to be sensing, is a question of whether the time you spent at work is as fulfilling. It’s less a question of what you do as work providing purpose, and it is maybe more about achieving the balance so that – in your whole life – you are doing the things that give you personal fulfilment.

And this from King’s College seems to identify just that: “Of 24 countries, the UK public are least likely to say work is important in their life and among the least likely to say work should always come first, even if it means less leisure time” and “The UK is among the most likely to say it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work” But the percentages in the UK haven’t always changed much since 1999. “Between 1999 and 2022, the proportion of the British public who agreed work should always come first, even if it means less spare time, declined only slightly, from 26% to 22% – although agreement rose as a high as 35% in 2009.” So that number bounces around, likely affected by outside influences.

There is a significant rise in one aspect: “Compared with 40 years ago, people in Britain are now more likely to say it would be a good thing if less importance were placed on work – a trend that can also be seen across other western nations” – and that in the UK that HAS moved up sharply post-pandemic (and is more true for younger generations). Also: “The UK public are among the most likely to say leisure time is important in their life – though the majority of countries place a similarly high value on this”

Advice: Show how you can ACCESS purpose with your employer

I’d say what this is what people are identifying. A certain ennui with the world of work; perhaps having been forced/enabled to consider the other things that are important during Covid.

Meantime, if employers are responding to this by promoting that as part of your work, you get to feel the organisational purpose, they are perhaps missing the point.

Organisational purpose is good, that won’t hurt. But what people appear to be truly seeking is how to do the things in their own life that matter to them, their wellbeing and values, alongside their work. Which then circles back to the flexibility of work.

My advice to employers would be to put the flexibility they are able to offer people in that context. NOT that a lack of a 5-day commute frees up time and money, but instead that it provides opportunity for family, friends, hobbies, volunteering, fitness.

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