Everyone wants to find meaning at work, but many don’t, as recent research shows. But why does meaning matter, and what are its sources?

Nearly nine out of 10 employees in organizations worldwide don’t perceive their daily work as meaningful, as a recent study has shown. That’s an alarming number, considering that the same research identifies meaning as a “root cause of innovation and corporate performance.” But when do people feel that their work is meaningful, and how can organizations and leaders help to create meaning?

Stefan Ries, CHRO and member of the SAP Executive Board

Those were some of the questions addressed by renowned experts at the Future of Leadership Conference 2016 at the end of November. The conference was hosted by the non-profit Future of Leadership Initiative (FLI) which is dedicated to investigating modern leadership culture.

Luxury or Business Factor?

The FLI researchers surveyed people in 140 countries and found some astonishing results.

Organizations whose employees see their work as meaningful are around 21% more profitable. Their employees are more engaged and more persistent.

For 58 percent of employees – especially from the younger generation – a meaningful job is even more important than a high salary, the study reveals. Stefan Ries, Chief Human Resources Officer and member of the SAP Executive Board, knows this from personal experience: “Young people entering the job market ask us about meaning straight out and their choice of employer hinges on the answer.”

So it’s all the more alarming that 87 percent of the employees in the FLI survey don’t perceive their work as meaningful.

Sources of Meaning at Work

As the research verifies, people experience their work as meaningful when they feel they’re making an impact.

Giving employees autonomy also creates a sense of meaning. Dr. N. S. Rajan, former Chief Human Resources Officer and member of the Group Executive Council of Tata Sons and author of the book “Happiness at Work,” explains: “It is very important for someone to have a meaningful say in what he or she does. When you have the empowerment and the autonomy to do it the way you best can do it, it makes you feel that you have really contributed.”

Dr. N. S. Rajan

Ries agrees: “We have to say goodbye to traditional hierarchical leadership models. A manager needs to be more of a coach who occasionally makes you get out of your comfort zone. This is the only way to create innovation.”

A common understanding of values and goals is also critical. The more your own values tally with the company’s values, the more meaningful your job will seem. That’s why it’s crucial “to create a common understanding of the company’s strategy and vision, and to demonstrate how are you going to live this vision so that employees can see how it connects with their everyday work,” Ries continues.

But it’s not only about what you do, but who you do it with. An environment which fosters relationship building and an atmosphere of appreciation and trust creates a sense of belonging, which, according to Dr. Rajan, is another key factor for a fulfilling job.

Corporate Responsibility in the Digital Age

What are meaningful corporate goals in an age where digitization is turning the world of work upside down and the exploitation of nature and the environment is advancing at an alarming pace?

Interview with John Elkington

John Elkington is a world authority on corporate responsibility and, in the 1990s, coined the term “triple bottom line“. Elkington, who is currently head of Project Breakthrough, a joint initiative with United Nations Global Compact, believes that the next 10 to 15 years are going to be among the most dangerous and high-risk that our species has gone through. At the same time, “if we can work out what we want to do, be very clear, engage the wider world, we can make it further and faster than we possibly imagine”, he explains.

But how can we tap the opportunities? According to Elkington, there is no time left for incremental changes. Instead, he urges exponential change, a radical mindset shift, and new business models that combine sustainability with profitability. In his opinion, the United Nations’ sustainability goals provide the framework for this.

This framework is also something that young people tend to subscribe to, he argues. “The global goals are like a purchase order from the future – as though the world of the 2030s is trying to reach back into today’s world to say, these are some of things we need,” he explains.

So it may be that this call from the future can also generate a sense of purpose. “Meaning is what I wish to be,” says Dr. Rajan. “That direction gives me a sense of purpose. That is true for organizations also.”

Profit or Social Engagement?

Both! In April 2016, SAP employee Irina Pashina took part in the social sabbatical program, where selected employees are given the opportunity to work in social enterprises and non-profit organizations in emerging markets, and help solve specific business problems there.

Pashina worked at Arunodhaya, an Indian organization that strives to combat child labor and child poverty. She found three factors particularly motivating: to aim for a higher goal than meeting profit and quarterly targets, to sense the direct and tangible impact of her work, and to work independently and on her own initiative.

Pashina doesn’t believe economic success and social engagement are mutually exclusive: “By helping SAP to be successful, I can also contribute in a small way to making the world a better place.”