By Stuart O’Donnell, MD, Boardwalk Studio

I recently read an article on Harvard Business Review which got me thinking. The article was about ‘meaning’ in the workplace and what value employees place on this. Which when implemented well is a benefit for both employees and employers.

The article looked at research actually undertaken in the 70’s by Studs Terkel, the respected writer, broadcaster and historian of American life. According to Terkel, work is about a search for ‘daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash and for astonishment rather than torpor’. Over 40 odd years later and following further studies, the findings are truer today than they were back in the 70’s.

This is especially true in the crazy Covid world we are all living in right now. The past 12 months have given all of us the opportunity to re-evaluate all that’s important to us, how we live our lives and what work means to us.

And it’s this reassessment of our lives that made the article resonate with me. We are increasingly aware or our own mortality (maybe that’s just me getting old)! But how do we as business owners act on the findings that meaning drives productivity? And how do we go about fostering meaning in the workplace?

Firstly, with apparently 9 out of 10 employees willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work, this is something that all employers should consider. That’s huge. And secondly what benefits can this sense of meaning bring to a business?

The more recent studies have shown that employees with very meaningful work spend one additional hour per week working and take fewer days of paid leave. They also experience significantly greater job satisfaction and therefore productivity. This in turn leads to more retained talent and therefore an increase in business productivity and cost savings on recruitment and training. It’s a win win, surely. It’s not so much a nice to have, it’s essential.

The ideas suggested in the report can be applied to businesses of pretty much all sizes and we in the creative sector can certainly take note of their suggestions.

The report gave three recommendations.

  1. Having a strong social support network.
  2. Making each employee a Knowledge Worker.
  3. Leveraging those with greater work meaning.

The first suggestion for me is a key one for running Boardwalk, it’s about having an open culture of communication where staff have the knowledge that they are supported around any concerns they may have, either professionally or personally. They are openly praised over work and frequently consulted about their future goals and given the necessary support to achieve those goals. Performance reviews are a key factor in this and should be carried out annually and not just be about salary increases.

Also tied into this is open communication about team project goals. Employees understand how their work is meaningful when they are aware of the bigger picture. Not just on an individual project basis but the company’s larger vision.

There’s a separate conversation about the benefits of a company having a ‘vision’ too. This has proven to align an organisation. There’s a book called Traction which goes into this in more detail, mostly relevant to larger organisations but useful nuggets for smaller ones too.

The other two recommendations from the report look at ‘Making every worker a knowledge worker’ and ‘Leveraging those with greater work meaning’. Research has shown that all work can become ‘knowledge work’ when employees are given the opportunity and can actually thrive when they creatively engage in their work, share knowledge and feel like they are instrumental to the process of getting work done. Personal growth, above and beyond professional growth increases a sense of meaning at work.

I believe we should look to support our employees desire for personal growth and development alongside the usual professional development opportunities.

The value of meaning to both individual employees, and to organizations stands waiting, ready to be captured by businesses prepared to embrace it.