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Top Factors That Contribute to Employees’ Sense of Purpose

22 factors contribute to the "meaning" employees find in their work. Here is a description of two of those factors: work/life balance and fitting in.

November 1, 1998
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Work/Life Balance
Tom Terez, a Columbus, Ohio consultant, spent several years conducting focus groups to determine 22 factors that contribute to the "meaning" employees find in their work. Here is a description of two of those factors: work/life balance and fitting in.

Work/Life Balance
Signs of work/life imbalance:

  • There’s an unspoken understanding that work should come first in employees’ lives.
  • The culture honors workaholics—everyone else feels guilty.
  • There’s pressure on people to make tradeoffs, with work almost always winning over family.
  • Late arrivals and missed days due to family circumstances—an ill child, for instance—are grudgingly tolerated.

Signs of thriving work/life balance:

  • People at all levels of the organization respect the fact that there’s life beyond work. This is backed by real action—as in the case of the manager who gives a half day off to a staff member following a 12-hour sprint to meet a key deadline.
  • Employees can take work home if they want to—but they don’t feel guilty if they choose otherwise.
  • It’s understood and accepted that employees often bring a part of home to the workplace. For example, for the sleep-deprived father of a newborn, expectations are reasonably lowered and rules are flexed.
  • People feel that their work lives and personal lives are in balance.

Real-world work/life struggles:

As an associate at a prestigious law firm, Martha had what appeared to be an excellent career situation. If she stayed on her current track for several years, she was destined to become a partner. There was just one problem: travel. Her work required her to spend three days a week—every week—on the road. At first it was fun, then it became tolerable, then it became unbearable. She began to feel disconnected from the rest of her life back home as work came to define her. Many of her colleagues seemed to handle the travel just fine, but for her, it simply didn’t work. On one of her out-of-town trips, she made a fateful decision. Soon after, much to the surprise of the law firm’s partners, Martha forced a rebalancing of her life by handing in her resignation.

Matthew remembers the day it dawned on him. It was a Thursday evening, at about 9:30 p.m., when he realized that for four evenings straight he had dug into his briefcase and spent a few hours doing work from the office. Everything else had gotten shoved aside, including his family. But on that particular Thursday, Matthew resolved to do something different. He packed his briefcase, snapped it shut, and made a promise:

When it’s an occasional thing, flex the rules. The culture should respect family needs more than it respects the corporate rule book. Whatever you do, don’t punish people for doing right by their families.

In the future, he would spend no more than two evenings per week doing work, and each time, he would spend no more than two hours. He knew it wouldn’t be easy; he had gotten into the habit, and it seemed that he needed to work the extra hours at home. But too many important factors in his life were getting neglected.

Ideas for balancing work/life:

Create an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable bringing their children to see the workplace. The kids get to see where mom or dad work, employees get to show off their kids, co-workers get to meet the children they’ve been hearing about for months or even years—and the line between work and home begins to blur.

Organize a company picnic, museum party, holiday gathering—some kind of mixer for employees’ families. An event like this is like a million water-cooler conversations. It makes the statement: We are not our jobs.

If an employee is constantly showing up late for work, ask him or her: "What can we as an organization do for you to help you get here on time?" That’s right ... do for them, rather than to them. Expect some good answers, and be ready to make the tough system changes that may be required.

When it’s an occasional thing, flex the rules. For example: A person arrives late because the regular babysitter got sick. The culture should respect family needs more than it respects the corporate rule book. Whatever you do, don’t punish people for doing right by their families.

Have a conversation with a significant other about the "state of balance" in your life. If you have children and they’re old enough, involve them in the conversation, as well. Does the balance feel right? If not, what can be done? Talk about it, think about it, sleep on it, talk some more—and take positive action.

Fitting In
Signs of a poor fit:

  • Few people can see, let alone understand, the company’s big picture and how they fit into it.
  • There’s a nagging sense among some employees that "this place (or job) just isn’t right for me. I’m not in a situation where I can succeed."
  • People feel a clash between their own values and goals—and what goes on in the workplace. Going to work requires them to be a different person.

Signs of a good fit:

  • Individual employees clearly see how they and their work fit into the bigger mission of the organization.
  • People are able to tap their strengths.
  • Employees spend their time doing things that match their interests.
  • The individual’s personal mission fits well with the organizational mission. There’s alignment between what they want in life and what they do at work.

Real-world examples of employee fit:

When Sandy went to work for a research lab, it was somewhat unclear what she would be doing. There were several possibilities, and all of them sounded exciting. Well, things couldn’t have gone better. Her colleagues came to appreciate her command of the Russian language, and they asked her to translate a series of Russian research articles. She loved the work and even began taking articles home.

Lonnie is the assistant to a community-organization director. The job has wide responsibilities, to say the least—everything from sweeping the floors to planning fundraisers." Most of the time, she says, the work is "mundane" ("There’s a lot more floor-sweeping"). Yet she puts her work situation all in perspective. "Every letter I type, every call I answer, every floor I sweep—all of it has an impact on our success as an organization. If I weren’t here to do those things, this place would sure enough keep going, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful."

As a sergeant in the Marines, Edward had an uncanny ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each person in his platoon. This would have been useful in most situations, but for Edward and the other soldiers, these insights were a matter of life and death when they were serving on the front lines in Vietnam. He recalls: "I knew that Al was at his peak in the afternoons, and that Josh was the best shot, and that another guy really knew how to read maps. I found it really easy to have them do whatever it was they were good at." The only problems arose when Edward and the platoon were in the rear, away from the fighting. "If I knew that Al and his buddy were useless in the mornings, but that they really got the job done in the afternoons and evening, I’d let them sleep in. Well, the higher-ups found out and told me I was breaking the rules. They overrode me. They wanted me to have one set of rules for everyone."

Encourage people to redesign what they do and how they do it based on their deep interests. Make this a collective undertaking. It will generate more ownership, invention and bottom-line benefit than anyone could ever imagine.

Ideas to create better fit for employees:

What talents and skills do you love to use outside of work? What are your deep interests? Perhaps you’re crazy about writing, or maybe you spend hours and hours of free time developing Web sites. Is there any way to bring these passions to the workplace? Try—and try to get other folks to do the same.

Get to know what fires up your colleagues. What are their deep-down interests? What is their source of "flow"? What would make them race to work because they can’t get there fast enough? Talk about these passions, and tap into them as often as possible. Encourage people to redesign what they do and how they do it based on their interests. Make this a collective undertaking. Too risky? It surely will induce chaos if people lack a common direction. Otherwise, it will generate more ownership, invention and bottom-line benefit than anyone could ever imagine.

Who are your suppliers, and who are your customers? (Read: Who serves you, and who do you serve?) It’s an easy question—until you try coming up with the answer. Give it some serious reflection.

Consider drawing a flow chart, process map, or system diagram. Even a 15-minute system doodle can give insights into where and how you fit in.

A team, work unit or functional area can do the same. Tape some butcher-block paper to the wall, and engage in constructive picture drawing. A quick-sketch system diagram or process map can help folks see the big picture and their role in it. It may even uncover improvement opportunities as people spot redundant steps, unmet customer needs and easy-to-solve supplier problems.

Workforce Extra, November 1998, pp. 6-7.

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