What does meaningful work actually mean to real humans?

career reflection
Episode 033: Using Stillness to Find Success
January 16, 2018
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January 22, 2018

What does meaningful work actually mean to real humans?

meaningful work

Meaningful work. Work that is meaningful. How many times have you heard an employee, direct report or interviewee utter the phrase?


Not to sound so dire this soon into the New Year, but did you know that around 50% of your employees are ready to leave the company? (According to a recent Gallup poll).


Let me focus that a little bit more. That’s not people ‘considering a move in the next year’ or ‘waiting til a project finishes to reevaluate.’ It’s people actively looking and ready to leave. Yowza. Granted, 50% of your company is not likely to walk out tomorrow, but what if even a fraction of that did? Where would that leave you as a functional team lead, talent manager or HR executive?


And what was the number one answer for why people stick around at jobs, according to Globoforce WorkResearch Institute?


You guessed it: meaningful work.


And to be clear, this spans across the generational divide. Usually millennials get the rep for wanting meaningful work, but it’s pretty well documented that every generation, dating back to the Great Generation (born between 1922 and 1945) have their own way of describing meaningful work.


So, if you’re still reading this and on board or quasi on board with the idea, let’s take it a step further:


What does meaningful work actually mean to people?

To help you kickstart your understanding as relates to your own company, I’ve compiled a representative cross section of actual client responses to this question. I’ve also noted the industry/field they were in at the time of the conversation:


  1. Non-Profit, 10 years of work experience: “What does the company do? Not sure. My thinking has become more concerned with finding a role that is interesting with a team that was collaborative, curious and hardworking. A strong focus on strategically thinking about the employee experience is a non negotiable.”
  2. Software/Tech, 20+ years of work experience: “The organization is committed to developing people, playing to their strengths rather than asking them to constantly work in areas of weakness, lack of knowledge, experience….in an ideal environment, I’d provide guidance, direction, quality assurance and roll up the sleeves to discuss and help design creative new approaches to solving customer issues.
  3. Executive Assistant, Financial Services, <10 years of work experience: “I’d like to have a little more independence and ownership of my work. Strengths used day to day would be my inter-personal and communication skills, organizational skills, resourcefulness, positive attitude, work ethic and intelligence. I have a high emotional IQ and can pick up things quickly. In a typical day I would like to be more involved in projects and not just on the sidelines helping. I’d like the opportunity to be a little more creative and to input ideas about something I actually care about. To work towards something I’m interested in at a bigger, more meaningful level.”
  4. Fashion, 10 years of work experience: “My ideal company is forward thinking, challenging the status-quo, moving an industry forward and solving existing problems by changing the way thing are done. The team is collaborative and my role is cross-functional. The title doesn’t matter, as long as the role is impactful.”
  5. Tech/Engineering, 15 years of experience: “I want to be in the team that manages innovation, product and/or customer relations for accounts that require innovative implementations to succeed. I would use my people skills to listen and communicate effectively , my ability to quickly learn new information, and my out of the box thinking to bounce ideas for unorthodox solutions to lead a team to help people/customers resolve issues they were confused and overwhelmed about or that they felt they had reached their limit in what they could optimize. My typical day would be meeting customers, having internal design conversations, building some things myself and then participating in the broader community of the area I am working in.



These answers show that it’s an important hiring AND engagement strategy to drill down on what an employee (and ideally a prospective employee, BEFORE they walk in your door on Day 1 of employment) actually wants – above and beyond the platitude of ‘meaningful work’ or ‘having an impact’. These five people sure know what it means to them. So drilling down on how it meshes with your organization (or not) during interviews is a great place to start, but I wouldn’t end it there. Obviously people’s needs and definition of this nebulous area can and will change over time as they develop their careers, so including it as part of the annual review process and even during regular checkins with managers and their teams can be very powerful. Employees feel like they’re being heard and that there’s a path to growth. Prospective employees hear that you actually care about this stuff (and bonus: if they’re not a fit, then you don’t need to go through the painful hiring + firing + rehiring hamster wheel process).


Let me know what you think of this in the comments below! Do you have additional definitions of meaningful work coming at you from your employees? What challenges do you face when you get to this stage of knowing what matters to employees, but you don’t know how to move forward?