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The Real Secret to Helping Employees Find Meaning at Work


Have you ever wondered why some people have a consistently positive and productive outlook at work, while others always seem drained? If so, you’ll be interested to hear this finding:

Employees who work in the field tend to report higher levels of meaning than those who work at desks.

Admittedly, it’s not a huge surprise: People have long shared a desire to escape “the 9 to 5 cubicle life” and find ways to “do what they love.” But what if the ability to achieve those goals is tied directly to the industry a person works in?

When we surveyed 12,000 employees for our latest employee engagement trends report, we discovered that where people spend their time—and not just what they do—may have a direct influence on how they rate their employers on meaning.

In other words…

In the quest to help employees to see their work as deeply meaningful, it appears that all industries are not created equal. And there’s a lot we can learn from the ones that are succeeding in this area.

You’ll find more details in our new report. For now, let’s take a quick look at what’s going on.

Finding Meaning at Work in Different Industries

Our employee engagement report revealed two important findings:

1. Companies with primarily field workers report four percent higher levels of meaning than companies employing primarily non-field workers.

2. Companies whose workforces are made up of knowledge workers scored five percent lower in meaning than those whose staffers work mostly in project-based, skilled roles.

Here’s what’s really interesting:

Employees in the latter group gave their employers high marks in several key areas such as professional development, trust, and paid time off. Yet these knowledge workers—individuals who spend most of their time “thinking for a living” in industries like technology—struggle to find as much meaning in their work as those who have more hands-on interactions with people or products in, say, construction. (Which, for the record, had the highest scores for meaning among all industries included in our report.)

There are a number of possible explanations, but for now we’ll look at just two.

First, companies that perform project-based work may be better positioned to show how employees’ work directly affects customers and clients.

To understand what we mean by this, consider The Progress Principle. After analyzing 12,000 days’ worth of employee data, developmental psychologists reached the following conclusion:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

It doesn’t matter if those employees are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply producing a high-quality product, according to researchers. Seeing the fruits of their labor each day, even when it’s a small win, can make a tremendous difference in how people feel about their work.

Second, while knowledge-based companies may be better positioned to offer generous PTO policies and training opportunities—drivers that influence employee engagement—they may have a harder time when it comes to the psychological conditions that help desk-bound workers find meaning. 15five’s research shows that overall role clarity, which helps employees connect daily work tasks to a company’s overall purpose, is lowest among companies with workers in knowledge-based roles.


Can Desk-Bound Knowledge Workers Find Meaning at Work, Too?

Absolutely. And as an employer, there’s a lot you can do to help them find it. Among the many recommendations in our report is this one:

To help employees view their work as meaningful, allow greater autonomy.

Why? Because the more freedom employees have to inject projects with personal meaning, the more motivated they’ll be to move things forward. And the more motivated they are, the faster they’ll be able to see real progress and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

Just because laying a foundation doesn’t involve actual concrete, that doesn’t mean your desk-bound employees can’t derive the same sense of purpose and passion that their construction counterparts do.

See How Else You Can Make Work Meaningful

The above overview is just the peak of a small mountain of insights on meaning covered in our new report: Employee Engagement Trends and Indexes: Q1 2018 Report. If you’d like to know what else you can do to help your employees find more passion and purpose in their work, I highly encourage giving it a read today. The findings will benefit all companies regardless of industry, size, or location. Download your free copy here >>

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