Ashtabula County Needs to Create More Meaningful Work

“Knowing who we are and how we want to be in this world, this is what makes work fun. The way we do it — in fashion or electrical engineering or waste management — doesn’t matter as much as the awareness of self.” Source: Rena DeLevie’s You Are More Than Your Job.

Yes, we are more than the job that we perform each day to make a living. That is not to say the money isn’t important, because it is very important. I also believe work can be a way for us to discover ourselves, or create greater self-awareness. In that way, work becomes meaningful to us.

Why is meaningful work important? Very simply, if work isn’t meaningful to us, we are not fully engaged in our work! Look at a 2013 report by Gallup Inc, which found that only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work — in other words, they’re passionate about their work and feel strongly committed to their companies. The remaining 70 percent of American workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work (Gallup, 2013). Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who are “checked out,” putting in time but without much energy or passion. Actively disengaged workers, meanwhile, act out on their unhappiness, taking up more of their managers’ time and undermining what their co-workers accomplish. According to Gallup, disengaged work has a hefty economic price: Active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year! Ouch!

Economic development is all about jobs and work. Unfortunately, economic development has not given much attention to meaningful work, and creating an environment in communities and workplaces for workers to create and discover personal meaning in the work they do. The Growth Partnership and its partners should be giving attention to meaningful work creation in Ashtabula County. Here are some things we should pay attention to as we approach this priority. A recent survey revealed five key things missing from many workplaces that people deem to be very important to their work:

• Helps you to fulfill a life purpose.

• Helps you to become what you were “meant to be” in life.

• Is a major source of life happiness (e.g., makes you feel “alive”).

• Involves tasks that you would do for pleasure on your own time.

• Enables you to do good things in the world.

If you’re shaking your head no to the importance of these work qualities or characteristics, you’re kidding yourself. The absence of these “opportunities” may be exactly why your organization cannot attract the skills and talent it needs to succeed. So what can any organization do to make work more meaningful? A recent article suggests these ten actions can make a positive difference:

1. Measure meaningful work on your next employee survey. Make sure your survey taps the workplace features mentioned above: a job that helps fulfill a life purpose, a job that helps people be what they are meant to be, etc.

2. Find out what really matters to employees. Try asking this on your next employee survey: “If you woke up tomorrow morning with $20 million in the bank and five years to live, what things would you do for the rest of your life?” Now, find “low-cal” ways of making work in your organization seem more like these things.

3. Communicate meaningful work that’s already there. Meaning is partly a state of mind. Employees may already have opportunities for meaningful work that are not well communicated. Make the connection between individual jobs and the purpose of the organization.

4. Connect employees with people who have been changed by your organization. Invite people to give testimonials at annual meetings and town halls. Start a “twinning” program among employees and clients. Collect and share client stories or videos.

5. Ask your employees how they can have a bigger impact. Conduct surveys and focus groups. Get ideas and empower employees to implement them.

6. Enable employees to do philanthropic work outside of work. Donate the time and money, set up a program and offer a suite of opportunities.

7. Offer career counseling “plus.” Not all development is career-related. People are human beings before they come to work. Consider what they’re trying to accomplish in their nonwork lives and who they’re trying to become. Support those efforts.

8. Coach managers to provide better feedback and recognition. These are two “must haves” of meaningful work that I’ve identified in my other research, and they’re relatively free. This could be done tomorrow. Recognition is important for employees to see their impact.

9. Use meaningful work to attract and recruit people. If you’ve got meaningful work in your organization, flaunt it. Review your current strategies for acquiring talent and make sure the message is there.

10. Make a pledge about job and organizational redesign. This is a longer-term goal, but get it on the radar. Revisit job descriptions and reporting lines. Get employees to brainstorm how they could do their jobs differently. This is at the heart of “job crafting,” a technique from Amy Wrzesniewski at the Yale School of Management. Don’t assume that meaning is inherent only in certain jobs. Most of them can be imbued with more meaningful features.

Let’s start an ongoing conversation about how to bring about more meaningful work in Ashtabula County. Work doesn’t have to be a bitch, and then you retire!

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