What Does Meaningful Work Mean?

Should your employees get to pursue passion projects, or should they stick to a work agenda tailored solely to meet the current, specific needs of your company? That’s the question that came to my mind when reading a report in CNET about a presentation by Facebook that was part of Glassdoor’s 2018 Best Places to Work Tour in San Francisco.

The perks of Silicon Valley tech companies such as Facebook and Google are legendary, but Facebook Vice President of Human Resources Janelle Gale doesn’t think that’s why employees stick around. She says the greatest impact on retention is made by the ability to do work that’s meaningful to the employee. “While the perks are awesome, they’re not the most important thing, and they certainly are not the most important thing from an attraction or retention standpoint,” Gale said. “The difference between the people who stay and go is that they’re doing meaningful work in areas that matter to Facebook, and areas that matter to them.”

Google, I remember reading, encourages employees to pursue pie-in-the-sky projects that inspire them. Not only does giving employees license to pursue their dreams on the job keep them at a company, but sometimes it gives rise to innovative solutions and services. For instance, you have a product you wish was on the market, and you can’t find it, so you devote energy to coming up with a plan for your own company to develop it. Maybe your company can’t do it exactly as you envision, or do it on its own, but perhaps the company could partner with another company to do it.

My own work, like that of many creative people who need to earn a living, often is not meaningful, but I make time on my own to pursue interests, such as creative writing and travel writing, that deliver meaning, if no income. Do you think my company, a health trade publication, could benefit by encouraging me to weave more creativity and a love of travel into my work? It’s hard to see at first, but I think benefits could be had. For instance, I could write first-person accounts of my experiences in optical shops, an optical health-related business, that we cover. I could be a “secret shopper” reporting back to readers on my experiences. Or I could—and do—sometimes offer scripts of hypothetical ideal doctor-patient conversations, drawing on my ability to write dialogue for short stories.

For your own employees, do you think there’s a benefit to encouraging them to integrate their life’s passions into the work they do for you?

Some of your employees have charities they participate in at night or on the weekend. You could easily use their involvement in those charities to heighten your company’s profile in the community, or even nationally or internationally, having the employee propose a plan for your company to participate—without necessarily donating money.

Perhaps an employee is a painter outside work, but doesn’t work for your design or creative services department. But she could still inspire greater innovations by offering the graphic or industrial designers you employ a fresh perspective. She could show the designers paintings from the Renaissance, for instance, that inspire her, or pop art from the 1960s—fresh elements that could take the designs of your products or marketing in a new direction.

The employee who loves nature and spends long weekends hiking, bird-watching, and learning about wildlife could get involved in finding more environmentally friendly material-sourcing of your products, or could do research into the environmental or carbon footprint your company is leaving behind. You may hire an outside firm to do that work, or have an in-house professional, but there still would be benefits to getting the amateur nature lovers on your payroll involved. They would become internal advocates for becoming more environmentally friendly, bringing other employees along with them to also become champions of the effort to change the way you do business.

Your employees are more than the narrow niches that represent the focus of their work. Encouraging them to bring more of themselves to work every day can result in greater power beyond what they are able to deliver to your customers.

Do you encourage employees to pursue passion projects during their workday? How can you make the most of all of your employees’ interests?

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While editing one of the articles, “Lessons for New L&D Leaders,” for this issue, I read something that struck a chord: “When meeting with peers and up-line colleagues, ask: ‘How can I help you

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