The Importance of Purpose: Value and Volunteerism in the Modern Workplace
We recently attended a leadership and development conference that focused on several nontraditional learning issues impacting the current workplace. We were impressed with some of the messages and several of the speakers. One in particular, Aaron Hurst, resonated because he spoke of the importance of purpose in a world increasingly hard to make sense of and a workplace that's changing at a consistently rapid pace. We've been thinking about what gives people purpose and fulfillment.
The Desire for Purpose Permeates the Current Workplace
Recent research finds that 66 percent of the U.S. workforce is, by their own definition, unfulfilled. Furthermore, 31 percent of college students would rather major in a purpose than a specific discipline that leads to a specific career plan. What can be done to address the shifting reality and calm a workplace already rife with uncertainty and seeming more unstable or “unreadable” on a daily basis?
There are many answers to this type of question and when one looks at various companies there are clues to trends and actions that enhance a sense of fulfillment and sense of worth as well as makes clear what detracts from these same qualities. Not surprisingly, studies find that companies that have a culture committed to sustainability with an aspect focused on “social consciousness” tend to have a more committed workforce and higher overall employee retention rates. Let’s look at some examples:
- TOMS is a company with a strong “social purpose” that ties and gives a deeper purpose to the issue of growing revenue and profitability. The footwear brand supports a one-for-one program that allows for the donation of shoes, water or eye care to the needy for every product it sells.
- Nike is another company that has consistently been committed to social and environmental issues. One of the authors of this article was CHRO at Nike in 1995 when the company focused on encouraging young girls to participate in sports. A spokesperson at that time said, “If you're a parent interested in raising a girl who is physically and emotionally strong, then look to sports as a means to that end.” (Vizhier Corpus)
Both companies tied purpose to business vision, and both became as much mission-based as profit driven.
The two can co-exist and one can, and often does, support the other. Is it any surprise that both of these companies have been consistently noted as top tier “favorable employers” over the years? We posit that this result comes not only from the companies being on trend and reading the market “more correctly,” but also because the companies are seen as socially relevant, tied to social trends and causes, and committed to the immediate and greater community. These companies offer a sense of mission to the consumer, the employee and, thereby, to the brand itself. They offer a sense of purpose that not so much supersedes as supplements their business purpose. They live beyond the moment and consistently mean something to the future.
The Importance of Volunteering Knows No Age Boundaries and May Help to Unify a Disparate Workplace
There has been much published about the difficulties of melding generations within the workplace and the fact that not mixing generations productively in the workplace leads to a fragmented culture and a resulting decline in productivity and learning. As we discussed in a prior piece, more than ever, the baby boomer generation is retiring from structured careers and turning to volunteer work. This relates to our past argument that this generation may have a desire to leave their current career or profession, but does not have any desire to “retire from active life.” Yet we also have found through our research that volunteer work is rising among millennials and others at different stages within the workplace as they search not so much for career progression as for purpose-driven activity. And for companies, this translates to “free” expertise, energy and real savings.
“…Volunteers gave about 1.9 billion hours … and the value of their donated time was about $20 per hour. That calculates to about $38 billion in lost volunteer time in one year” if the volunteers aren't utilized appropriately, and this is a conservative estimate.”
As individuals have started to recognize the importance of “giving back,” so have companies seen a greater portion of those in the workplace. It's probably a ”chicken and egg” scenario. It's also a scenario that shouldn't be ignored, avoided or missed. More companies are including “volunteer days” as part of their work environment and their benefits packages. Yet it's no longer about employees participating in single day activities such as helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, spending an afternoon delivering meals for Meals-on-Wheels, reading to disadvantaged kids at a school, or volunteering for a day at a food bank.
Research shows that millennials are more committed to social improvement and longer-term support of causes, whether it be climate change, poverty and hunger, or world peace in greater numbers than baby boomers were when they were at a similar age and stage. Yet it's important to note that baby boomers have once again “joined” the social improvement cause crusade in numbers much closer to those seen in the 1970s. And while the boomer generation no longer has the need or desire to “climb the corporate ladder,” most have no desire to become fully retired (i.e., irrelevant) either, focusing their time solely on noncontributory, somewhat “hedonistic” activities only (golf, anyone?). Hence the rise in this generation of more individuals actively pursuing meaningful volunteer opportunities.
One of our colleagues who plans to retire at the end of this year told us that he had no interest in “doing nothing” but wanted to find meaningful ways to give back to the community and make some sort of a difference. Interestingly, with the proliferation of social media, there's an enhanced awareness of societal needs to the point that more cross-generational commonality may develop naturally and may allow a generational alignment that, to many, seems impossible to create. Imagine using the workplace to align varied age and work sectors. Image the workplace becoming what outside activities did for prior generations. Imagine the workplace as the new laboratory of social and generational cross-functionality. This reality has created a situation where millennials and baby boomers can align and make a positive social impact. It's not some pipe dream; it's happening in isolation and the opportunity is to model something bigger.