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The future of work revolves around not WFH or salary, but purpose

Published 1 April 2021 in Strategy • 4 min read

Peter, a driven young manager, has a dream job in terms of flexibility. He can decide when and where he works – as long as he gets his job done. As a single father of two, this flexibility is crucial. But he is just not happy in his job. His work feels meaningless and lacks a clear societal impact.

Maria is so well remunerated that she is at the top of the compensation range for her role – not to mention the fact that her company’s headquarters are based in her dream city. She can live where she wants and afford a comfortable lifestyle. Nonetheless, Maria is preparing to re-enter the job market because she can’t identify how her work contributes to a greater good, nor is she particularly proud of what she does; her job fails to give her energy and provide her with intrinsic motivation.

Both Peter and Maria’s jobs feature several of the attributes traditionally believed to motivate people’s job choice – flexibility, salary, and location. But despite these upsides, these two leaders are still not satisfied. Flexible working conditions, money, or location will not be the decisive factor in attracting and retaining talent in the post-COVID world. More flexible working conditions will likely be a given – as practically every company is moving to greater flexibility: whether working from home, job-sharing, telecommuting, or something else. As for salary, unless wildly above the norm, pay rates will not compensate for a mundane, socially isolated role. Meanwhile, location is becoming increasingly unimportant in an ever-more-virtual world.

When the accoutrements of the workplace fade away – social activities with colleagues, a flashy office, regular visits to clients, travel, and so on – what will remain and matter are the feelings of pride and meaning people derive from what they do. In this world, purpose will be the key differentiator.

The value of doing work with purpose has long been recognized. Employees who engage in deeply purposeful work have greater motivation (Hackman & Oldham, 1980); less absenteeism (Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, & Schwartz, 1997); and more engagement (May, Gilson, & Harter, 2004). Nevertheless, over the past few decades, many employers have got away with ignoring the strong evidence for purpose, in favor of offering other workplace “distractions”. But in the absence of the latter, purpose is all that remains.

So what exactly is purpose and what makes a job purposeful?

Purpose is being able to identify the ultimate aim of one’s work, feeling proud about that aim, and seeing how one’s role contributes specifically to it. As scholar Amy Wrzesniewski found, deeply purposeful work is employment that people perceive as contributing to some greater good and making the world a better place.

Three steps to clarifying purpose

What can your organization do to emphasize the purpose in what it does and what it asks its employees to do?

Define the goal

First, it can clarify its purpose so it is easy to grasp and communicates the greater good being served. Does a company making elevators describe its purpose as creating equipment that brings people to their desired floor of a building, or does it describe its purpose as contributing to equality by allowing everyone (regardless of physical ability) to reach the same destination at the same time? Are you, as a community, manufacturing elevators, or contributing to equality? If an organization’s leaders can’t articulate a clear and compelling purpose, it is unlikely their workers will see one.

Foster accountability without a blame culture

Second, does the organization allow for accountability without accompanying it by blame? Are people given sufficient ownership of their tasks to feel pride in what is accomplished, without fear that errors will be punished? In one organization I worked with, employees were reluctant to take ownership because each potential error was an additional chance for negative attention from bosses and peers. Once management started moving toward a more experimental, learning-oriented culture, employees began to feel more ownership (and resulting pride) from their work because they were not afraid that being accountable would merely mean another opportunity for punishment.

Choose the moment to motivate

Finally, are you stretching people in their tasks or projects before you are certain they are ready? Doing so (as long as the challenge is accompanied by the resources needed to be successful) creates eustress – or a positive type of stress (i.e., challenge) – which brings along with it motivation and enthusiasm. If you wait until you are convinced someone is ready, it is usually too late and they are already feeling unchallenged.

Taken together, these three factors – a clear purpose, blame-free accountability and a stretch culture – can make a significant difference in how employees perceive the purpose behind their work. And in a post-COVID world, this purpose will be essential for attracting and retaining the best talent.


Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Jennifer’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. She has received specialized training and certifications in lie and truthfulness detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Women on Boards and the Leadership Essentials Course.


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