Help Employees Find Purpose Again

For a more productive and connected workforce, leaders need to build a collective sense of purpose in the remote work environment.
Brian PeccarelliFebruary 16, 2022
Help Employees Find Purpose Again
Photo: Luis Alvarez

As the world settles into permanent work-from-home and hybrid office models, many workers feel a bit nomadic as they fluctuate between the office, house, and wherever else they can find a Wi-Fi connection. Instead of savoring this new work-life, some have found themselves craving a modicum of their old routines.

Knowledge economy workers are struggling with focus, feel disconnected, and are having a hard time building a collective sense of purpose in the remote work environment. The distractions are abundant, but more than that, for many the sense of belonging, community, and culture have become a vestige of the past.

Consider the Great Resignation, a phenomenon where workers quit their jobs at an alarming pace throughout the second half of 2021. With a record 4.4 million Americans leaving their jobs in September alone, it has become clear that something was lost in the two-year transition to remote work.

The missing ingredient? Purpose. A recent McKinsey survey found 70% of American workers said their sense of purpose is largely defined by work. Those findings were echoed in a 2021 Thomson Reuters survey, which found that more than 90% of legal and tax professionals said their work provides them with a significant sense of professional purpose. These employees also told us that sense of purpose is derived from the ability to share knowledge with colleagues they are mentoring or from networking with other professionals. Both are hard to replicate in a remote work setting.

Leaders will need to put clear, quantifiable actions behind their words to help employees connect and feel a part of something bigger.

Business leaders need to find a way to help employees feel connected, whether they are in an office, on a virtual meeting screen, or toggling between the two. It’s an arduous task that doesn’t have a quick fix. Instead, leaders need to think about a company-wide strategy that can build community while staying flexible to evolve with changing cross-industry norms.

Employees are not only receptive to this kind of leadership from employers; they are actively looking for it. Corporations are now the most trusted institutions in America, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the survey said “my employer” was the most trustworthy source of information, considerably higher than the government or news media. Further, 76% of respondents expected their company CEOs to inform and shape conversations about jobs and the economy.

These findings expose an opportunity for business leaders to start communicating with employees about the bigger picture — to engage in transparent discussions on day-to-day tasks and the larger mission behind the work. Regular emails, updates on social media, and town hall meetings are a good place to start. But leaders will also need to put clear, quantifiable actions behind their words to help employees connect and feel a part of something bigger.

Small changes can help build a sense of connection so many of us are clamoring to find. In those incremental steps, employees will start to be reminded that although the work setting is still in flux, the goals of that work remain the same.

This process will undoubtedly take time, and business leaders will have to go through many iterations before finding the right formulas. But with remote and hybrid work here for the long haul, companies need to keep their finger on the pulse of employee sentiment. Those that make the concentrated effort to meet their employees where they are and lead them to where they want to go will reap the rewards in the form of a more productive, connected, and purposeful workforce.

Brian Peccarelli is co-chief operating officer of Thomson Reuters.