Finding meaning is the key to a fulfilled life.
Finding meaning is the key to a fulfilled life.

3 Keys to more meaningful work

We spend the majority of our day at work, yet I can literally count the number of people that love what they do and feel it is meaningful on my one hand. That is far less than 1% of the population and in my opinion something to be concerned about.

The majority of people only work because “that’s what people do” or because “it pays the bills”. Most people choose a career not based on their passion, but rather on the promise of financial stability or pleasing a parent, in many cases resulting in a lifelong commitment to an unsatisfying job.

Stuck in the rat race

Tired of being stuck in the rat race in an unsatisfying job, and even more tired of witnessing friends and collueges spending the majority of their day sacrificing time with their loved ones in a mission to survive on a day-to-day-basis doing something they don’t even like, I embarked on a journey to figure out how work can be more enjoyable and more meaningful for the average person, and how companies can use this information to create happy work environments, ultimately increasing productivity, and thus profits.

I looked at both happy and unhappy people at work, and were particularly perplexed at why thousands of educated people spend thousands of dollars each year to do volunteer work in uncomfortable conditions, forfeiting the luxuries that they love so much at home. It doesn’t make sense, yet we keep doing it.

So I tried it myself, and in an attempt to understand what is so satisfying about volunteering, worked for less than $500 per month teaching English in Asia in a really uncomfortable and polluted 40 degrees environment, earning just enough money to scrape through the month eating rice and fruit.

I discovered three key reasons why volunteering feels so meaningful compared to “real” work, and how this can be used to make work more meaningful, and ultimately more profitable for both the employer and the employee:

Key #1 — The ability to solve problems

Deep down, we all love wicked problems. We love complaining about them and sharing stories about how our problems are so much bigger than our friend’s.

In a way, having problems make us feel valuable. Being presented with an obstacle in our daily lives makes us feel as if we have a purpose, meaning, that what we do matters. And, being the social beings that we are, it gives us something to talk about in our otherwize boring lives.

Being a problem solver however, I went to my employer, who has been struggling with declined growth and already had to downsize quite substantially, with a list of practical, easy and virtually free solutions that can improve her cashflow immediately. Rather than being delighted with the solutions presented to her, she was more delighted with the opportunity to talk about the problems as she felt understood when I accurately and concisely summarized her main problems. But she didn’t do anything about it. It was as if she didn’t really want to do anything about the problems and that simply feeling understood, was enough.

That made me feel worthless however, as my work was unused waste, yet she seemed satisfied with the relief of not having to carry the burdon of all the problems on her own.

That got me thinking and I realized that this is true in most work environments. Managers are often misunderstood and overburdoned with problems that they feel they have to solve on their own, while employees feel disempowered and under-utilized. So what can you do in your workplace to allow employees to solve more problems?

Reward the team for reporting problems and make it their responsibility to solve. Help them create a business case for a suitable solution and facilitate problem solving within the team, empowering and supporting and allowing for innovation.

Key #2 — Individual challenges

In a team setting it is often hard to feel any sense of personal achievement as successes are never as a result of only one person, and I have found this to be very demotivating. It made me doubt my own value, and whether what I did made any difference at all, especially when it is so easy to replace the generic job titles, like cheap consumables.

But being the only change in a “problem child’s” world who showed no progress over more than a year prior to my arrival and with two different teachers, seeing the transformation within a few months can conclusively be credited to my effort, and that makes me feel valuable.

The once loud, disruptive 7 year old boy who refused to sit, speak any English and keep quiet during class, has morphed into a model student. Not only does he participate in class and keep quiet, he is in charge of keeping the rest of the students quiet when I leave the classroom, and consistently succeeds in my ever increasing challenges.

There is no doubt that what I did made a difference, and seeing the results of my hard work makes my work meaningful. In the corporate world performance appraisals and career development plans are often focused on the company’s goals and how the individual can fit into that picture. Personal development goals are rarely taken into consideration, and recongition is usually given on team level, not individual level. So how can companies motivate employees more?

Introduce individual challenges which are directly aligned with the individual’s needs for personal or technical growth.

When you include personal goals in career development plans, it not only grows the individual’s talent, and with that the asset in intellectual property, but will breed a culture of responsibility and trust, where people take ownership of their own lives.

Key #3 — Make it real

Teaching in Thailand for just enough money to get through the month is definitely not a sutainable or sensible career choice, and the only reason why I did it, was because I felt that I made a difference in real lives. It felt meaningful.

I could see the difference that I made in people’s lives, and that’s real. So much more real and valuable than I’ve ever felt sitting in a comfortable office behind a computer earning $15 000 per month. (Although I must be honest, at this stage, that sounds enticing).

When I see how my students’ grades at school improve, or how they got a promotion as a result of their improved English skills, or simply just having a conversation where a few months ago they were not able to converse at all, it feels real.

In a corporate environment the teams doing the work are often removed from the customers, and they don’t see how what they do matters or is used. How can corporates use this knowledge?

Ingredient # 3 for happy workplaces is to connect the team with the implementation of their work in a real environment, and giving them an opportunity to obtain direct feedback.

One way to do this is to introduce “shadow sessions”, where the employee spends a day observing either the real users of the product or service, or someone from a different business unit such as marketing or customer care.

This will help team members gain a better understanding of how their work is being used and why specific solutions are chosen. It will improve cross-departmental communication as well as cross-skill employees, allowing them to help out in other departments during peak times, and utlimately, that means being more agile, creating cross-functional teams.

Happy workplaces are workplaces where people contribute to something bigger than themselves. It is places where what each person does is valuable and valued. It is places where they can grow.

Creating happy workplaces don’t require any financial investment or a lot of effort. It merely means that you as manager or leader needs to listen to your team, empower them to solve problems and allow them to fail.

Meaningful work is work where you can see the impact of what you are doing, and meaningful work is one of the most satisfying things any person can do.

Originally published on Medium: