Meaningful work, as a concept, has been discussed in academic and people & culture circles for some time, but it really only burst into the collective consciousness of employees – and onto the radar of employers – over the past two years.
The priorities of employers and employees should be aligned. Employers know they need to provide opportunities for people to perform work that has meaning if they are to attract and retain the best talent. By the same token, employees want to be given meaningful work that ignites their passion, harnesses their knowledge and/or challenges them to strive to be better.
In practice, however, the two parties, employer and employee, can become misaligned on the issue.
Consider your own situation. If you were to step back and look objectively at your own role today, what percentage would you describe as ‘meaningful’, and what percentage might you categorise as ‘mundane’?
More than likely, not everything you do keeps your internal fire burning brightly and consistently. Whether it’s weekly or monthly reporting, administrative tasks like record-keeping or timesheets, or – for internal or external customer-facing roles – responding to many of the same questions over and over, there may be things that cause you to question whether or not your work or overall contribution is meaningful.
Underlining the disparity, your employer may consider what you do to be ‘meaningful’, insofar as it actively and positively contributes to the company’s financial position. Whether or not that meets your own standard for or definition of, meaningful work is another question entirely, but it’s one that employers are trying to understand and address.
Employers are becoming much more cognisant of these issues. In a tight recruitment market, they, in some ways, have no choice. Employers know they must do everything within their power to keep existing employees happy and productive.
More employers than ever are running regular employee sentiment surveys to gauge well-being and mindset. While anonymised, the aggregate views offer considerable insight and evidence of whether employers are getting it right when it comes to meaningful work.
These results are pushing leaders – and the organisations they work for – to develop new skills and specific initiatives to foster a meaningful work environment for individuals and teams.
As PwC notes, this may not come naturally. “It’s rarely second nature for leaders to focus on making jobs fulfilling,” PwC says. “Doing so requires deep empathy on the part of managers and the ability to translate the company’s overall purpose into specific actions and behaviours so that employees can see how their work contributes to that purpose. It also requires organisations to identify and eliminate gaps between their words and deeds.”
But PwC goes on to say that: “Managers can create the right work environment and leadership model, and they can remove the most burdensome aspects of employees’ lives – excessive bureaucracy, points of friction, administrative tasks that sap the joy from work.”
These are important dots that need to be joined. Managers can only do so much alone; at some point, they must find ways to relieve employees of boring tasks, so those employees can focus on the things that excite them most.
Exciting areas are often emerging areas with high-growth potential. It makes sense for employers to point employees in these kinds of future-facing directions.
Automation’s time to shine
The automation of repetitive, boring work is an increasingly valuable action that can cleanse roles of the mundane so that only meaningful aspects remain.
How much of an employee’s role can be automated will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, though some estimates indicate the automatable portion to be significant. McKinsey, for example, estimates “that 25–46% of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030.” It goes on to say that “as automation technologies integrate into the workforce, the mix of skills required in all jobs will shift. For example, people will spend over 60% more time using technological skills.”
These are not insignificant percentages. They offer a view on the significant time savings that are possible from automating uninteresting parts of current roles. Employers often talk about the benefits of achieving single-digit productivity improvements. High double-digit savings produced by automation promise to free up and create a time dividend that may be unimaginable today.
What organisations do with that time dividend is the million-dollar question, but there are a lot of meaningful options. It could be reinvested in training and developing the careers and skills of individuals, opening them to new opportunities. It could allow the creation of a Google-like 20% rule, giving employees time to work on pet projects that could wind up as winning products. It could be time that gets given back to employees in the form of a better work-life balance.
The options are endless, but all of these things can increase job satisfaction, employee engagement and loyalty. All of which are definitely worth striving for.