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Here’s what employees really want when it comes to purpose at work

May 01, 2022 - 444 views

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Here’s what employees really want when it comes to purpose at work

Five ways to help employees connect their work with a purpose that’s meaningful to them.

You might say we live—and work—in an age of purpose. In addition to companies around the world intensifying their focus on social, environmental and governance (ESG) issues, there’s also a growing perception that young workers want to feel the work they do contributes to the greater good. According to our recent research “The Purpose Gap,” 65% of employees under the age of 40 agree it’s important that their employer positively impacts society.

The corollary is clear: Attracting and keeping the talent you need means demonstrating the work they do is meaningful, both to themselves and to the world.

What’s surprising is that despite companies’ stepped-up efforts at corporate social responsibility, few young workers say they feel a connection to these efforts, according to our “Purpose Gap” research. The numbers drop even lower when employees examine their own workplace connection to purpose: Just 18% strongly agree they’re living their purpose at work.

Connecting work with purpose

One reason for the disconnect is that employees don’t necessarily believe their employer's position on ESG commitments is genuine, according to our study. A second is that people define purpose differently. In our study, the top ways to define purpose at work ranged from having a good work-life balance, to forming lasting social bonds, to getting paid well.

The good news is, the top way respondents defined purposeful work was something employers can directly influence: feeling passionate about the work they do (named by two-thirds of respondents). So, while young workers clearly want to work for a company that positively impacts society, they also prioritize a workplace that fuels their own personal sense of purpose.

The upshot is clear: It’s up to businesses to find new ways of leading, communicating and empowering employees to help them define a personal sense of purpose at work and create the avenues to pursue it.

Putting passion and purpose to work

Here are five ways leaders can help employees develop a stronger connection between their work and a purpose they can feel passionate about.

  1. Make sure they see the impact of their work. In addition to being externally focused, corporate purpose should also be inward-focused so that work itself is meaningful. In this way, the work day itself becomes purpose-driven.

    In a service organization like Cognizant, for example, customer engagement adds a powerful dimension of purpose. We do good by helping our clients do good. This symbiotic relationship is something employees can feel passionate about when they see it in the work they do every day.

    For example, through Cognizant’s co-innovation fund, our teams in France and Spain partnered with Sanofi on a mobile application that enables blind and visually impaired patients to access details on drug packs. Initiatives like these help employees see how our destiny is linked to the well-being of our customers.

  2. Be flexible about job roles and responsibilities. Allow employees to work with clients whose goals align with their own. Early in my career, my employer’s policy of allowing us to choose the clients we wanted to work for had a big impact, giving me a greater feeling of connection to my work.

    Cognizant offers employees similar choices, and I observe parallel outcomes. For example, a staff member who’s passionate about helping her community shared with me that she finds working in our public sector vertical to be hugely rewarding. Every day she feels like she makes a difference.
  3. Never stop modernizing your leadership style. A big part of making purpose a reality occurs when senior officers walk the talk. I credit my reverse-mentor experience with reshaping my communication style and making me more effective.

    This young employee encouraged me to post more frequently on the company’s internal portal and to redraw the line on what I considered too commercially sensitive. The resulting transparency impacted the company’s culture in a way that everyone, including my mentor, felt more connected with the company and the meaning of their work.
  4. Personalize guidance and feedback. When it comes to providing employee feedback, leaders need to go beyond the common platitudes in which many of us take cover. In a purpose-driven environment, senior managers need to understand what’s important to the individual and incorporate that into their guidance.

    By collecting and aggregating information about the employee from multiple sources such as subordinates, peers and managers, the feedback will be richer and more personally meaningful.
  5. Keep an open mind about the best practices for hybrid work. Our study points out that most employees favor the ability to work remotely but continue to see value in the physical workplace. In particular, they see the office as the best place to develop key skills such as conflict management and networking.

    The fact is, we’re still learning about how to best approach hybrid work. The best strategy is to stay open to ideas and experiment on what will and won’t work.

As leaders, it’s our job to connect the dots between purpose and the work our employees do every day. Making that vital connection gives us the chance to not only increase employee satisfaction but also to boost retention amid intense competition for talent—and add a renewed sense of purpose to our own work.

Digital Business & Technology diversity, inclusion, ESG, Purpose

Ursula Morgenstern

President, Global Growth Markets

Ursula Morgenstern is President, Global Growth Markets, which covers all of Cognizant’s markets outside of North...

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