The Engaged Workplace: Making The Meaning of Work Visible
The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work. That’s 3,750 days or 10 years. We pin much of our happiness, and our unhappiness, on what we do during the working day. And yet, we are often curiously unsure of why we do the work we do; or are unable to see the difference we make.
When we aren’t properly sure of the purpose of our work, our motivation stalls. We carry unvented frustration; we grow resentful and unsatisfied, and ultimately less productive. We should take consolation, first of all, from the fact that we are far from alone. A recent study conducted by Gallup shows that average employee engagement is at a remarkable 15 percent. But beyond this, we should seek to understand why so much of work can feel uninspiring.
In the face of our uncertainty, we might reach for obvious but unhelpful solutions: if only the workplace were more spacious, light and airy; perhaps if there were a monthly drinks night we might feel more at ease; we must surely book another holiday…
Yet, the key to building an engaged workplace lies not primarily in creating more opportunities for socialising or a more hospitable working environment or a higher salary — money is never enough — but rather in a sense that our work is contributing to some greater good and that it might even lead to the happiness of others.
A lot of jobs feel less meaningful than they really are because the way they help others is (or feels) unclear. Often what is needed to find this sense of purpose is some perspective in terms of scale. You might be at work on a ten-year-long project which has clear importance but which is mind-numbingly dull day-to-day; or you might be overwhelmed by the largeness of the task but forget to notice the important detail closer to hand.
Leaders can help to fix this problem of scale. The good leader knows how to make their team feel valued by reminding them of the greater whole to which they are contributing. They take time to go over the impact of their work with their team and celebrate the impact their work has, using concrete examples; they show how the team in China is now better able to do their own work, or how customers or clients are enjoying the final product. Making the meaning of work visible is key to increasing attention at work and to improving how a job feels.
Showing gratitude is also crucial, especially for leaders. It sounds like a very small thing but it plays a seismic role in the fortune of companies. If we have a strong sense of why we do the work we do, we are much more likely to succeed in a tight economy.
To create a more engaged workplace, we need to make the meaning of our work, especially the impact it has on others, visible. This might mean thinking a little harder about why we do the work we do; it will, undoubtedly, involve learning to take pleasure in seemingly banal tasks, so that day-to-day activities feel meaningful. In both cases, we can not only seek greater meaning for ourselves but work to make the meaning of our work more evident to others.
By learning to see work as something that positively changes the lives of others, and which is deeply appreciated by our own team, we might begin to see a big change in one of the biggest workplace issues of all: how hard and well people will work.