Meaningful work: Tomorrow’s challenge for HR and leaders
« Happiness does not come from things. It comes from work and pride in what you do. »
Mahatma M. K. Gandhi
Within the framework of the ‘Master’s Degree in Human Resources & Careers Management’ at the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Fribourg, Olivia Guscelli Ngabonziza and Caroline Greutert wrote a dissertation entitled: "Meaningful work. New opportunities for HR and leadership practices".
Meaningful work – a sense of a meaning in what we do – has been much discussed and researched in recent years. The erosion of meaning at the workplace is arguably one of the major challenges of our time. Human resources are in the focus of business leaders, against the backdrop of organizational transformation, knowledge circulation, and digitalization. The human resource is increasingly seen as an intangible asset that improves organizational performance and competitiveness.
Moreover, work is an important part in everyone's life. One of the best ways to find meaning in one's life is to find meaning in one's work. Both quests resonate with each other. Work is a way to earn one’s living but also, simultaneously, a source of socialization and possibly a vector for fulfillment. In particular, works contributes to the individuation process, or identity-building, that widely lays upon recognition by others. This is only possible if work makes sense – for the person and people around her.
As part of a ‘Master of Advanced Studies in Human Resources’ degree, two researchers led a study among 450 organizations (including about 20 IOs) in French-speaking Switzerland, in a variety of sectors. Their main conclusions are as follows:
Does the size of the organization or company impact the meaning at work?
The researchers found that the perception of meaning at work is similar between large firms (over 500 staff) and very small firms. Businesses that employ between 50 and 100 people are the least conducive to the perception of meaning.
Is meaning connected to which industry one works for?
Results show that industries that are related to values considered as human or useful to society (HR services, humanitarian action, public administration) are those that score the highest. However, the humanitarian sector does not, unexpectedly, have the highest score. One should keep in mind that persons who answered our questionnaire work at Headquarters (i.e. in French-speaking Switzerland) and not in the field. Field personnel can see the direct effects of their work (when a hospital is created inside a refugee camp, or the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example), while people at HQ no longer have this direct perception even if they share the values, the mission and the commitment to their organization. In addition, both leadership and managers tend to think that the organization's meaningful mission is self-sufficient, and that they do not have to put in place HR practices that sustain meaning (those can be moments dedicated to communicating the vision of the organization, its objectives, its priorities and regular addresses by the leadership). On the long run, this leads to erosion in the sense of meaning.
Are meaningful practices being implemented and if so, how often?
Study results show that the majority of meaningful practices are absent from organizations, including exemplary behaviors of the manager, regular professional feedback or communication on the vision of the organization. On a positive note, other practices such as organizational justice seem more frequent, even if their implementation remains sporadic. This suggests that some interviewees still perceive their organization as "unfair" or that staff are somehow treated arbitrarily.
Research has shown that practices implemented by HR and leadership to reinforce a sense of meaning in the workplace are often still in their infancy.
Olivia and Caroline, themselves HR managers, question the role of human resources to tackle tomorrow's challenges. Staff members expect responsible attitudes and behaviors that inspire values such as trust, fairness, honesty, gratitude and listening, resulting in a good social climate. Conversely, when an organization ignores these practices or neglects to implement them, an exposure to the emergence of harmful individual and social behaviors arises.
In order to increase employee motivation (and, in turn, organizational performance), general management must endorse these practices and create appropriate frameworks. Concretely, this amounts to training managers and to helping them acquire necessary skills so they can, in turn, support their staff. HR has to guide and lead business change along these lines. The Director of Human Resources has to advocate for it, and build awareness among the leadership, using indicators to demonstrate potentially high dividends.
Olivia Guscelli Ngabonziza and Caroline Greutert will give a lecture on their paper’s topic at the HR show in Geneva (Palexpo) on 2 October 2019.
More information on human resources diplomas at the University of Geneva: http://www.mrhc.ch/
This article has also been published in the UN special magazine.September 11, 2019