Meaningful work by Jim Keane

 Steelcase CEO Jim Keane

Steelcase CEO Jim Keane

I was speaking this week with a new CEO of a new public company that is just being spun off from their parent company. Imagine all the important tasks on his plate involving investors and customers. And yet he told me his top priority is getting his employees engaged in the mission of their new company and helping them see how their industrial products are really becoming technology products and playing an important role in the lives of their customers.

He’s not alone. Gallup tells us that 87% of global employees are disengaged, so it should be the top priority for every CEO. Since work is fundamental to the human experience, employee engagement is very relevant to topics being explored at this year’s Drucker Forum.

87%. How did this happen? Could it be that by creating efficient, repeatable, scalable business processes, we have engineered the meaning out of work?  We hire diverse people with different skill sets, and we ask them to do the same job, the same way as everyone else. We set up rules and metrics to reduce errors through conformity and drive productivity through incentives and punishments. We are hoping that being less bad will somehow make us good. We don’t dare to dream about being great. In fact, in these engineered workplaces, an employee would have to break the rules to do something remarkable.

It’s no wonder most employees are disengaged. We isolate people, and put them in standardized, uniform work settings that reinforce the idea that your unique wants and needs are not of importance to us. Regardless of what we might say in our speeches, the decisions and policies of facilities and HR deliver a clearer, stronger message to employees.

What if we’ve reached the end of the S-curve that attempts to compete, by engineering processes that even disengaged workers can do adequately? How terrifying would it be to face a new competitor who has 87% engaged workers, who know exactly when and how to break the rules? What if they discovered that connecting people leads to faster innovation than isolating them? What if they really leveraged the diversity in their workforce to solve the global/local paradox and other issues we all face?

Many CEOs are aware of the problem and are working to improve employee engagement, starting with new programs aimed at wellbeing or offering flexible work hours. But a new program may not be the answer. Tom Rath, author of “Fully Charged,” has a theory about happiness. He says that if you seek happiness, you won’t find it. However, if you seek meaning, you will find happiness. The same applies to engagement. If you seek engagement directly, you may not find it. If you lead people to find meaning, perhaps you will.

We believe there are three specific types of meaning to consider:

  • Meaningful work: What is the impact my organization has on the lives of customers and society?  How am I uniquely contributing to that purpose?
  • Meaningful connections: How do we make it easier for employees to connect with their colleagues around the world?  How do we deepen existing relationships to build a strong social fabric within the organization?
  • Meaningful progress: How can we help people feel a sense of accomplishment and help people feel they are making an impact?

Satya Nadella, the CEO at Microsoft, once said in an interview, “One of the things that I’m fascinated about generally is the rise and fall of everything from civilizations to families to companies. There are very few examples of even 100-year old companies. For us to be a 100-year old company where people find deep meaning at work, that’s the quest.”

What do you think it will take for organizations to help people find that kind of meaning in their work – whether they are long established businesses, or new start up companies?  How do you think about the significance of your own work? Reflect on when you were most engaged and discovered a sense of meaning.

About the author:

Jim Keane is President and CEO of Steelcase, the global leader in the office furniture industry, and a member of the boards of Rockwell Automation and IDEO.