5 Insights on the Meaning of Work

“Meaning” is a major issue today in our world of work. We are used to short-termism, relentless change, and constant financial pressures but all of these are having an impact on how we view our work and its purpose. Creating meaning at both an individual and organisational level is imperative as, without it, we ignore our humanity and therefore will not create high-performance organisations. We need engagement in the workplace, not solely an exchange for our labour.

In October 2015, I attended the Meaning of Work Conference, hosted in Vienna by the Corporate Research Forum, whose network covers over 145 organisations including 38% of the FTSE 100. Here are my top five take-outs.

1. Which elements create meaning at work?

Meaningful work creates stimulated, motivated and committed people. To create meaning, an organisation must provide :

  • A clear purpose and direction
  • A conducive working environment, both physically and as a part of the broader community
  • Opportunities for collaboration and teamwork
  • A chance to learn, with a sense that we can develop and move forward
  • The opportunity to make a contribution to the whole.

2. The Orchestra as Metaphor for Work

Not many conferences have a live orchestra involved for three hours to bring the metaphor to life! But by listening to, and observing the interactions of the orchestra as a team of expert musicians; understanding the actions of the conductor; and appreciating the interplay with the audience, we were prompted to think more deeply about the dynamics of leadership and engagement. Micromanagement by the conductor destroyed the flow of the performance just as, in our organisations, individuals need to take their direction and inspiration from leaders but enjoy the freedom to shape their contribution to the whole.

Communication and direction from the leader and the way in which they guide and nurture their “team” has the ultimate impact on the end result. As you can see in this short video, I had the opportunity to conduct the Vienna Youth Orchestra, illustrating superbly that there are degrees of success in leadership communication. Judge for yourself what degree of success you think I attain!

3. How to create purpose in an organisation

Nigel Nicholson, Professor at London Business School, pointed out that leaders are often too focused on “doing”. This is true for most of us. The more we do, the more effective we perceive we are but while we are busy getting things done, we have usually lost our sense of perspective. This busy-ness of business becomes the substitute for the real purpose of our work.  If we can strive to recapture a sense of purpose, and if the organisations we work for can articulate that too, then everyone reaps the rewards of enhanced engagement, productivity and performance.

Rebecca Homkes, Teaching Fellow at London Business School, suggested that organisations create purpose through a “powerful intersection of:

  • Strategic insight
  • Innovative approach to meeting an unmet market need
  • Unifying commitment to achieving this”

She drew attention to the fact that companies need to have the critical conversations required to get to this clarity, but many don’t.

4. How can meaningful workplaces and meaningful work be developed?

The work environment in which people not only survive but thrive is one where:

  • Excellence is recognised and rewarded
  • People can see that they are dealt with fairly and equally
  • Leaders clearly communicate values and purpose
  • Leaders actively engage their workforce on 2-way feedback

5. Top 3 most thought-provoking tweets

You only have to scan through #CRFVienna to get a sense of the inspiration that the sessions produced and the reflections which delegates have taken back into their respective organisations. So it seems fitting to close on a handful of these tweets:

“Can you achieve high-performance if you replace passion with efficiency?” @IngWaterfield

“Meaning is the single most desirable feature in any job and the single most elusive feature in any job” @Katie_Jacobs

“Is HR a co-conspirator in the breakdown of trust and leadership?” @sianharrington

Final Word

Do you feel that there is a strong sense of meaning and purpose in your organisation? How does this feed your corporate culture and employee engagement? How effectively is purpose communicated by leaders at all levels? We would love you to join in the debate, and invite you to share your insight below or tweet us @starboardthink.

With special thanks to the CRF Team.

© Tim Pointer, Starboard Thinking 2015