How to Create a Culture of Purpose and Connection at Work

Let’s Get to What Matters for Employee Well-being

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As employers face challenging levels of employee burnout, disengagement and turnover, research suggests human resources departments need to create a new playbook to attract and retain top talent. Evidence that the traditional approach of offering higher pay and competitive benefits is not working abounds, and understanding why employees are making the choices they do is important for taking a more thoughtful approach to solving recruiting ad retention problems.  

Why Are Employees Leaving?

CultureofPurposeResearchers with the real estate firm Clever surveyed 1,000 employees who quit their jobs in 2021 and found that 80 percent of people who gave their notice received a counteroffer from their employer but decided to leave anyway. Even more eye-opening, 53 percent of survey respondents who quit to take another job accepted a lower salary.

In October 2021, Gartner researchers surveyed 3,515 employees to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the employees’ perceptions of how work fit into the rest of their lives. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the women who responded said their mindset regarding work had shifted. Also, 53 percent of women indicated they were questioning the purpose of their day-to-day job. Overall, men and women reported they want to contribute more to the good of society.

These are just two of many recent surveys showing employees are prioritizing meaningful work and well-being over pay and benefits as they consider the future of work. It is little wonder, then, that Gartner also shared survey results in January 2022 showing that organizations need to take a more people-centric approach to work. Doing that involves helping employees feel a deeper sense of connection and belonging at work, as well as addressing employees’ desire to find meaning and purpose in the tasks they complete each day.

So, how can employers foster the development of an organizational culture in which employees feel a deeper sense of connection and meaning? Here are five ways to create a more people-centric culture without breaking the bank.

Create Opportunities for Employees to Reflect on Their Purpose

Initially, it is helpful to incorporate content about purpose into employee wellness initiatives and career development activities. Doing this might include:

  • Providing written content that encourages employees to reflect on their life purpose.
  • Offering digital tools or apps that guide employees in developing a purpose statement or identifying their core values.
  • Incorporating questions about purpose into mentoring, coaching and professional development conversations.
  • Creating campaigns that encourage employees to share and tell stories about what matters most in their lives and how their day-to-day work contributes to their broader purpose.
  • Incorporating purpose conversations into new-hire orientations.
  • Identifying volunteer or community service opportunities that prompt employees to reflect on the causes they care about, and consider how the employer supports those same causes.

Get to Know What Matters to Employees

Many organizations have mechanisms for collecting feedback from employees about their work experience. Examples of such mechanisms include:

  • Individual conversations;
  • Pulse surveys and polls;
  • Annual employee experience surveys;
  • Exit interviews;
  • Focus groups; and
  • Anonymous comments on a digital platform.

It can be helpful to incorporate questions that assess employees’ perceptions of the extent to which their work feels meaningful, how supportive their manager and co-workers are, and their connections and belonging at work.

Collecting this kind of information can be useful for informing decisions about which resources, programs, benefits and training opportunities are needed within the organization. Additionally, it is important to analyze data by department, work location and job type to reveal pockets of needs that are not apparent across the entire organization.

Employee feedback must also inform performance management. Promotions and leadership opportunities have often reflected measurements of employee outcomes. Incorporating employees’ feedback and perception data into decision-making about professional advancement and compensation acknowledges attendant concern for how work gets done instead of merely what gets accomplished.

Create Opportunities for Employees to Connect in Meaningful Ways

Many organizations incorporate special programs and team-building events into the work calendar. Doing this adds an element of fun, establishes a foundation for connectedness and helps address mental and emotional well-being issues associated with social isolation and loneliness.

While such programs and events help increase connections among employees, they are insufficient to foster a deeper sense of belonging in the workplace. The key is to create opportunities for employees to connect that go beyond surface-level, transactional conversations about work. Some ideas include:

  • Configuring physical workplaces to encourage informal and casual conversations (e.g., with centralized, inviting, comfortable gathering spaces).
  • Creating digital platforms or virtual forums for peer-led, informal personal conversations that are not work-related or task-oriented.
  • Incorporating small-group interactions into larger gatherings to encourage authenticity and personal storytelling.
  • Scheduling more time for personal sharing during regular meetings, which allows team members to develop deeper connections and relationships with one another.
  • Providing relational skills training to individuals and teams.

Lead by Example

Leaders set the tone for what gets prioritized in the workplace and how people behave. For this reason, it is important for leaders to model the behavior they expect to see from others.

When it comes to fostering a sense of connection and belonging, leaders must take the first step by demonstrating authenticity, vulnerability and compassion in the workplace. It also helps to incorporate guidance on engaging in these behaviors into leadership development and training courses.

Some specific areas to address include:

  • Helping leaders understand how their language and behaviors influence a broader culture of trust, inclusion and psychological safety.
  • Identifying specific actions leaders can take to model authenticity, respect, compassion, inclusion and curiosity.
  • Providing training to leaders at all levels to build skills in the areas of psychological safety, authentic relating, appreciative inquiry and emotional intelligence.
  • Teaching leaders to model authentic and personal sharing, which signals to others they have permission to bring more of their authentic selves into their work relationships.

Recognize and Express Appreciation in More Meaningful Ways

Employee recognition and reward programs are not new, but they can be strengthened by focusing on behaviors that help employees feel seen, valued and heard. It is also important to incorporate informal ways of recognizing and showing appreciation for one another outside of annual performance reviews.

Proven approaches include the following:

  • Creating recognition programs that emphasize behaviors that foster a culture of connection, belonging and care for one another (e.g., kindness, listening without judgment, service).
  • Guiding employees in how to express appreciation for co-workers’ strengths, skills and diverse perspectives even more than for their work performance.
  • Developing campaigns that encourage employees to practice acts of kindness, express gratitude and serve one another.

In the war for talent, some employers are leaning on short-term solutions such as hiring, referral and retention bonuses. Substantial research, however, supports taking other approaches that fulfill the human needs to feel valued, to belong to a community that cares about them and to believe one is contributing good to the world around them. Those innate human needs are not going away.

Given the significant amount of time employees dedicate to their working lives, they are shifting their expectations to demand more from their employers. Organizations seeking long-term sustainability must invest in creating and maintaining a more people-centric workplace culture.

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