Meaningful work is the ultimate perk

Workers crave meaningful work and attentive onboarding, according to a new ServiceNow survey

Meaningful work and employee engagement
  • Employees report spending 40% of a typical workday on busywork, robbing them of time for higher‑level tasks
  • Slightly more than half of survey respondents would trade some of their salary for more meaningful work
  • Onboarding programs often fail to engage new employees with a sense of greater purpose

Trendy perks such as free snacks, Friday happy hours, and yoga classes don’t factor much into workers’ overall job satisfaction these days.

The biggest benefit employees seek is greater meaning and purpose in their daily work. In fact, many would gladly trade some of their compensation for more meaningful work, according to a new ServiceNow/Edelman Intelligence survey. (Check out the related infographic).

“Employees today want to know that they are realizing their full potential at work,” says Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow.  “Using technology to reduce the mundane tasks they face every day frees up people to focus on the more creative, important and fulfilling aspects of their jobs.”

Workers who feel like they’re not making valuable contributions are likely already scouting out their next gig. That’s a big problem for employers trying to retain talent in a job hunter’s market. “If you don’t give people meaningful work, they’ll leave,” says Cara Silletto, president of Crescendo Strategies, a workforce consulting firm. This is particularly true for new hires, who tend to cut their losses and move on if they feel unfulfilled.

The root of the problem isn’t an epidemic of dysfunctional cultures or clueless bosses. It’s more about the increasing burdens of administrative busywork coupled with poorly executed onboarding programs. “If you force new employees to do mostly grunt work, you’ll rotate through those people faster than you did before,” says Silletto.

Companies that find ways to reduce or automate grunt work while instilling purpose in new hires are more likely to win their hearts and minds.

The price of purpose

In the survey of 2,000 U.S. office workers, 58% said they wished their work was more meaningful. It wasn’t just often‑stereotyped Millennials expressing that view. While 65% of 18‑ to‑ 24‑year‑olds wished their work was more meaningful, 70% all respondents who said the same were over 35 years old.

Meaningful work is important enough that slightly more than half (52%) of the respondents said they would sacrifice a median pay raise of $1,000 to get more of it. On the flip side, 62% said they would only switch to a less meaningful job if they got a median pay hike of $5,000.

A recent study covered in Harvard Business Review supports the same argument. More than nine out of 10 people surveyed by BetterUp said they would be willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for more meaning on the job.

The grind of busywork appears to be the focus of their angst. Survey respondents said they devote 40% of a typical workday to mundane tasks—double the amount they say is necessary. Compounding their misery, 66% believe they are powerless to change the equation.

Drudgery ultimately hurts employee morale and motivation. Asked how menial tasks make them feel about their work, nearly half of respondents chose responses such as “like I’m wasting my time” and “bored;” 44% said tasks make them feel unmotivated, and 34% said they make them feel like they’re not living up to their potential.

meaningful work

The fact that those negative feelings are somewhat higher for newer employees poses another problem for employers, because those newer (and often younger) workers have no intention of suffering through years of dues‑paying as their more senior colleagues may have done in years past.

One‑third of employees today say that they know after just one week on the job if they are likely to stay long‑term, according to a 2015 survey from Ultimate Software; 63% make the call within the first month.

“Businesses need to re‑evaluate how grunt work is done—who’s doing it and whether it can be automated,” Silletto says. “Maybe it should be rotated among employees so no one feels it’s too much of a burden.”

Failing at onboarding

Successful onboarding has been shown to make a difference in employees’ sense of purpose, but the survey suggests many organizations are falling down on the job when it comes to prepping people for their roles.

Asked about their experiences when starting a new job, 33% said they received no essential training; 28% said they did not even receive clearly defined job responsibilities and goals. Another 26% percent reported not having a clear onboarding program, and 19% said they didn’t feel fully onboarded even after three months on the job.

The survey suggests companies have a win‑win opportunity if they can address their onboarding challenges. Workers clearly want more training and guidance in the early days of a new job. Fifty‑eight percent said walkthroughs of key processes were most valuable, while 47% wanted time to review onboarding materials.

At an electrical connector manufacturer where Silletto worked as a trainer, employee orientation always included demonstrations of how seemingly insignificant products could have a major impact on customers. For example, the connectors were built into lifesaving pacemakers.

“That was part of the company’s culture—telling employees that they were building useful things that mattered to many people,” Silletto says. “That brought more meaning to their work. They knew they weren’t there just to hit goals.”

Other factors can enhance workers’ sense of purpose. In its 2018 Employee Retention Report, software employee engagement company TinyPulse found that workplace culture can matter more than pay when it comes to staying with a job. Its survey found that employees who rate their culture poorly are 24% more likely to leave their jobs.

“You can’t just put your values on a poster,” Silletto says. “We like to say, ‘What’s on the wall doesn’t walk down the hall.’ You have to guide people in your history and values and their roles and responsibilities. That starts with onboarding.”

The takeaway for employers: Starting from day one, find ways to infuse job responsibilities with meaning and purpose. If you wait until employees ask for those things, it’s probably too late.