The pandemic has caused many workers to think deeply about what’s most important in their lives and how to spend more of their time focused on what gives them purpose. The more managers understand and help support the existential needs of their employees, the more they’ll be able to retain workers and benefit from a workforce powered by meaning. The author offers three ways to engage and retain employees seeking more meaning in their lives. First, look beyond salary and other material benefits and think about what is going to help workers meet their need for meaning in life. Second, help all your workers, regardless of position, feel like their jobs serve an important purpose. Third, if remote work is going to be common, spend more time than usual focused on facilitating social opportunities and providing mentorship in order to stave off feelings of loneliness.
Humans’ fundamental need to perceive life as meaningful — which comes from the feeling that one’s existence has purpose and significance — is nothing new. But the prolonged fear, uncertainty, isolation, and grief brought about by the pandemic has caused many people to reexamine what gives their lives meaning. Numerous studies show that when people are thinking about death and other heavy existential topics, they become more focused on what makes their lives feel fulfilling because meaning reduces existential anxiety by helping them feel like they’re part of something larger and longer-lasting than their brief, mortal lives. This search for meaning can influence job-related behavior and decision making — including about where to work.
Many people are taking this opportunity to reevaluate how their work fits into their lives. In a survey conducted in March, 26% of American workers said they’re planning to leave their current jobs and look for new ones when the pandemic is over. (That number goes up to 34% among Millennials, the largest generation currently in the workforce.) Here are three ways managers can support (and hopefully retain) employees grappling with these existential questions.
Look Beyond Salary
When employees become more focused on existential concerns, they may prioritize purpose over money. Managers should thus look beyond salary and other material benefits and think about what is going to help workers meet their need for meaning in life.
For instance, in one recent survey, 60% of respondents reported they would accept less pay in exchange for more flexibility, such as the ability to work remotely. Remote work or flexible hours may be attractive to many employees looking to focus more on meaning if it allows them to spend more time with family and friends outside of work. Indeed, my research team found that when people are asked what gives their lives meaning, the most common response is close relationships with family and other loved ones.
Managers can also promote an office culture that values “unplugging” from work by creating clear boundaries between professional and personal time (such as not emailing employees during nonwork hours). This balance will become increasingly difficult but important as remote work continues. Research shows that expectations for after-hours email monitoring decreases employee well-being and increases turnover intentions. The more managers can help support people’s desire to balance work with having a fulfilling life outside of work, the more likely they’ll be to attract and retain employees, and the more likely those employees will be happy and engaged at work.
This may be especially important in the post-pandemic world, when many workers will be thinking more about how the pandemic changed their family lives. Pew Research Center asked U.S. adults how the pandemic negatively and positively impacted their lives. Personal relationships were the most frequently mentioned aspect of life that was negatively impacted, with 41% of respondents reporting missing family and friends. At the same time, 33% of respondents indicated that the pandemic allowed them to spend more time with their spouses, children, or other family members. In other words, the pandemic heightened many people’s awareness of the importance of relationships by either showing them what life is like when they can’t spend time with loved ones or showing them what life is like when they have the opportunity to spend more time with them. Managers should expect a post-pandemic workforce that is more focused on the fulfillment they get from time spent with loved ones.
Make the Work More Meaningful
This doesn’t mean that work is irrelevant to meaning. Quite the opposite. Work allows people to support the families they value so highly and make contributions to their communities. And research finds that people are more likely to have high job satisfaction and commitment if their job feels meaningful. Therefore, managers should endeavor to help all their workers, regardless of position, feel like their jobs serve an important purpose.
Create job descriptions that clearly identify how each position serves the broader mission of the organization. When possible, give employees the opportunity to participate in defining their job duties and how they approach them, which can increase the meaning they derive from their work.
Gallup reports that one in three employees worldwide strongly agrees that the mission or purpose of their organization makes them feel like their job is important. The existentially threatening nature of the pandemic may have also heightened employees’ desire to work for organizations they see as making a difference in their communities and the world. My research team has found that the more people are driven by the pursuit of meaning in life, the more motivated they are by prosocial goals such as improving their community. Managers should emphasize how their organization makes impactful contributions to broader society to help workers connect their individual efforts to a larger mission. Dedicate time at team and company meetings and celebrations to highlight and provide updates on how the organization is making a difference through its mission and how the employees make that possible.
Foster Strong Working Relationships
It’s too early to know all of the pros and cons of moving large numbers of workers from the traditional office environment to remote work; more research is needed. Some employees may benefit greatly from remote work because, as previously noted, it provides them the opportunity to spend more time with the people who give their lives meaning. But this doesn’t mean there is no potential negative effect of remote work on purpose in life.
Surveys suggest that Millennials are more likely to report that they often feel lonelier than older generations. For example, a 2019 YouGov survey found that 30% of Millennials indicated feeling lonely often or always, compared to 20% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers. A survey that included the younger Gen Z group suggests they may be the loneliest generation yet. And a recent study observed that young adults have been particularly lonely during the pandemic.
Remote work might sound very attractive because, in theory, it gives people more freedom in where they live, cuts down on commuting time, and generally provides more flexibility — but it also has the potential to make employees (perhaps especially younger workers) feel more disconnected from important social relationships.
Managers should consider the potential long-term effects of remote work on relationships, team-building, and mentoring. It may be difficult for many employees to view their work as meaningful if they don’t feel connected to their coworkers and managers. Hybrid options that allow some flexibility but still create an in-person work environment that helps employees form and maintain strong relationships may help create a balance between meaning at and outside of work.
If remote work is going to be common, managers need to spend more time than usual focused on facilitating social opportunities and providing mentorship. This can include organizing occasional in-person social activities that allow employees to get to know each other better, creating a mentorship model that pairs experienced workers with newer workers, assigning specific times in which managers and team members are available online to chat about projects, holding regular virtual team meetings, and utilizing virtual workspace software that at least partially replicates the social environment of the office.
The pandemic has caused many workers to think deeply about what’s most important in their lives and how to spend more of their time focused on what gives them purpose. The more managers understand and help support the existential needs of their employees, the more they’ll be able to retain workers and benefit from a workforce powered by meaning.