Do you ever just sit and ask yourself, why do we work? While the answer may vary from person to person, a common answer to this question is money. So, it may surprise you that money isn’t the main factor as to why people work, in fact, it’s not even the most important factor. With 9 out of 10 willing to take a salary cut to do meaningful work, people often turn to their leaders to foster an environment of meaningful work and engagement. 

A meaningful career doesn’t come out of the blue, but rather requires skills, passion, and courage, says Janice Burns, Chief Career Experience Officer at Degreed. While taking the first steps to build a meaningful workplace (and learning experience) might be jarring, that is part of the process. With the ability to analyze and adapt, the rest will fall into place. 

Where Do We Stand? 

The unfortunate truth is that we are not doing enough to recognize the needs of our workforce. Gallup’s 2017 State of Glob­al Work­force Report found that 85% of employ­ees around the world are either not engaged with their work or are active­ly dis­en­gaged. While the UK’s engagement rate is a bit higher with 45% of workers who engaged in their work, the UK still ranks behind countries like France (54%), Aus­tralia (56%) and the USA (60%). 

Yet, there is one industry that stands out from these global reports. The nonprofit sector has an engagement rate of 93% with 77% highly satisfied in their current role. In Work For Good’s research on what matters most to the nonprofit workforce, it’s clear that across the sector there are qualities strongly present in nonprofit work that are lacking elsewhere. Being able to help people, facing challenging but important problems, and a strong people and leadership culture are reasons why employees in the nonprofit sector value their work. The nonprofit sector shows that alignment with the value of your work makes a real difference, not just to the workday itself but your overall job satisfaction and output.  

At the moment, people aren’t feeling too stable or satisfied in their positions. With the world turned upside down, can you blame them? Almost half (46%) of employees feel that their core job skills will no longer be needed within five years. And more than 36% of workers are worried that their job skills will decay. People are feeling vulnerable in their positions, so how do you reinforce their value and longevity in your organisation? Again, the answer lies in creating a meaningful work experience. They want to see investment, commitment, to them and their position in the company. In other words, offering tailored learning opportunities plays a key role in creating meaningful work. Indeed, 46% of workers have stated that they would consider leaving their employer if they don’t see a commitment in reskilling or upskilling them. 

What is Meaningful Work? 

Malcolm Gladwell defines meaningful work by three main qualities: autonomy (being in control of our choices), complexity (being able to gain new skills and improve), recognition (direct connection between effort and reward - financially, spiritually, or other). Think of these as needs of your workplace, and if these needs are ignored or neglected, employees will lose dedication and feel discouraged. It also provides a good framework for focusing your learning efforts. 

Build autonomy, complexity and recognition in your learning experiences and you’ll soon boost your engagement, productivity and overall satisfaction. 

1. Autonomy

Does your organization currently allow your people to choose their own career and upskilling paths? Learning is not one size fits all. People learn in different ways. Luckily, there is a wealth of learning content out there to suit all styles, from webinars and podcasts to books and blogs. In fact, many people may already be exercising their autonomy over their learning. It’s just that you have no easy way to track it. People are constantly reading, searching, and watching while working. Many also turn to their peers to learn something new. 

Empowering your people to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and when, gives them true autonomy over their learning and, ultimately, their career journey. When learners don’t have the opportunity to choose their paths, aren’t clearly encouraged to learn, and have little interaction or interest with the course, the payoff isn’t going to be great

2. Complexity 

When you’re doing the same thing day in, day out, it becomes boring and you naturally disengage. When you keep challenging your workers and promoting upskilling and reskilling opportunities, you build complexity into their workday. They will continue to grow, and that means they’re engaging with their work day-in-day-out.  

Complexity also feeds into the need for a continuous learning culture. Once someone has learned a new skill, the time comes to build on it, and eventually master it. From this, they can then teach others or branch out into new upskilling opportunities. 

Give your people the resources and frameworks they need to constantly improve and challenge themselves. This could be a curated set of learning content that introduces them to a new skill. It could be a dedicated pathway or course to upskill them in a future-thinking skill (that they may need in the future or that your organisation needs). It could also involve manager and peer-review, so they can chart their progress and see how their upskilling is paying off. 

3. Recognition 

Recognition is a huge motivator. Learning for learning’s sake simply doesn’t happen in a busy workday. But, linking learning to work opportunities or further learning opportunities recognises the effort that someone has put into their skills. Promotions are, obviously, one way to recognise that someone has put time into their upskilling. However, this isn’t the only route. Lateral moves into other business areas can also be considered, along with informal work opportunities like mentoring or volunteering. An added bonus - offering career growth opportunities that tie into learning, also helps with reinforcing new skills and knowledge. 

Another aspect is promoting learning engagement through rewards, gamification, and competitions. When it launched its new learning strategy, Unilever used rewards and international competitions to promote its new content. The most prolific users got prizes (as well as recognition throughout the company). 

Much needed now

People need meaningful work now, more than ever. In the face of uncertainty, having a clear passion and purpose to aim towards in your work makes all the difference. By offering learning opportunities with the right levels of autonomy, complexity, and recognition, you can ensure your people keep moving forward with meaning.

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