Most people want to work for more than a paycheck. In fact, 9 out of 10 employees are willing to earn less money over a lifetime in exchange for greater meaning at work. Building meaning in the workplace also results in greater productivity for companies. Research shows that employees who call their work meaningful spend an additional hour per week working. Most importantly, employees who find work meaningful have significantly greater job satisfaction. 

The idea of finding meaning in a job saw greater urgency during the pandemic as employees saw new opportunities to reimagine how and why they work. This period of reexamining the purpose of work is also proving beneficial to the employer. As employees embraced a new sense of agency that let them align their interests to their company’s needs, which helped many employers thrive in uncertain times.  

Finding meaning in work is a two-way street between employee and employer. It won’t succeed if only one side is engaged. Here are four ways — from leaders in HR — to build meaning into employees’ daily work. 

Idea #1: Help employees become your customers’ hero

In times of uncertainty, focusing on the customer gives employees a shared sense of purpose. When the going — worldwide or for the customer — gets tough, teams can look for ways to make a positive impact using your company’s products or services. 

Mark Levy, Employee Experience Advisor for companies like Airbnb, Allbirds, and BestBuy recommends helping employees find meaning in their work by centering customers in their companies’ narrative. “When everyone was canceling their Airbnb reservations [due to COVID-19],” he says, “the company deployed more people towards customer experience so they could get closer to the customer. This enabled them to find ways their products and services could solve challenges, which created a sense of purpose for employees.”

Take action: Consider your company’s products, services, or offerings. How can they be leveraged to solve a current challenge? Can you make changes to your existing offerings so they’re more suited to the current environment? 

Keep in mind that meaningful work isn’t just about how you respond in times of crisis. It’s also about the everyday actions that set the tone for your company and team culture. We’ll explore this more in the next section.

Idea #2: Implement fair performance evaluations

There’s more to meaningful work than the tasks an employee focuses on every day. Building inclusivity around gender, race, and ethnicity are important factors in the equation. 

Jossie Haines, Director of Platform & Web Engineering at Tile explains that — whether intentional or not — unfair practices in daily work life lead underrepresented groups to feel that things are inequitable. For example, more than half of women in tech give up their careers within 20 years. Many leave the industry within the first three years.

One way to promote ongoing DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and ensure women — and other underrepresented groups — stay in the workforce is through fair performance evaluation systems. “Women get less concrete technical feedback than men,” Jossie says. “They’re encouraged to go into management roles because of their people skills and not because it’s really what they want to do.” Clear and thoughtful feedback can transform an employee’s experience and shape their future career opportunities.

Take action: Build clear evaluation criteria and career ladders that enable your engineers to have equity in their evaluations. It’s important for team dynamics and peer reviews to teach employees what good, effective feedback looks like. 

If you find you avoid difficult conversations, you’re not alone — 37% of managers say they’re uncomfortable giving direct feedback. But learning how to ask for and deliver feedback is critical, especially during times of uncertainty. We’ll explore how to skillfully handle employee feedback in the next section.

Idea #3: Listen to your employees

The best way to inspire employees is by knowing what matters to them. According to a Culture Amp survey, employee engagement rises by 80% at companies where employees believe their opinion is valued. In times of uncertainty, communication with your workforce is even more important. To feel engaged, employees don’t just want an update on business status, they need to understand the impact of current and future projects. 

Take action: Ask your employees for feedback frequently. When you make feedback a regular part of conversations, you remove some of the negative connotations people have around feedback. 

Only by absorbing what your team is thinking and feeling can you move forward together. This is why gathering feedback is essential. It allows you to understand employees’ perspectives and what they need from the company.  

Idea #4: Invest in leadership development

Companies shouldn’t expect only CEOs to lead and inspire employees. In times of crisis, people look to their immediate teams and more accessible middle managers for guidance. The actions and words of their managers are also most likely to have a direct impact on the employee. This is why it’s important to develop empowered leaders across the company who can thrive in any environment. 

Take action: Build a learning community for managers of all levels to build relationships with each other. Salesforce uses leadership communities to empower its leaders. “The leadership community that we’ve created enables our leaders to help each other,” says Senior Vice President of Talent at Salesforce Angela McKenna

“We prompt them to share their own experiences, ask questions, and talk about what’s going on for them. We create opportunities to do that through development programs, peer-led learning groups, and digital communities.”

Meaningful work moves your organization forward

Through the twists and turns of the last year, one constant has remained: employees want a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. When employees find meaning in their work, they’re more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stick around. 

Increasing employee retention means spending less time on costly recruiting and onboarding efforts. Helping your employees better understand themselves and their work environment, enables them to thrive. The more they thrive, the faster your business can move forward.

Discover more ways to build meaningful work for your employees in Fast Forward 2021: Why the Future of Work Needs to Be Meaningful.