Can Menial Be Meaningful?

“You can’t help me. I manage mostly wait staff who only work for the paycheck.” Ron, the owner of several restaurants, tells me this upon hearing that I help companies expand the societal impact of jobs, a practice called job purposing.

Ron believes some jobs – like nursing – promote societal good, and others – like waiting tables – don’t and can’t. Modern society agrees with him. We treat most low-skilled jobs as if they were inherently and inevitably devoid of societal purpose. Trying to job purpose the waiter position, long labeled as nothing more than a way to pay bills, appears absurd.

What’s truly absurd, however, is what Ron and many other managers do: continue to offer unalluring jobs that workers perform listlessly. With a little inventiveness, managers can enrich even menial jobs with societal purpose.

No job is so unmalleable that it is fated to remain perpetually purposeless. If anything, managers frequently add, adjust or otherwise modify tasks – often for reasons that appear ancillary to the job’s productivity but in the long term aren’t. Over the last several decades, for example, we’ve dramatically modified jobs to be safer. As a result, the workforce enjoys greater health and wellbeing, and managers benefit from less absenteeism and higher morale.

As workplaces of decades past required significant improvements in safety, today’s workplaces require significant improvements in purpose. Lack of purpose is a key reason that 85% workers globally are disengaged from their work, according to Gallup. The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen found that focusing on purpose is the most effective way to boost job satisfaction. Similar to how we’ve found it productive to make jobs safer, we will find it productive to make them more purposeful.

But how can we job purpose menial jobs? Let’s start with Ron’s challenge. Imagine wait and other restaurant staff identifying one charitable organization to support every month. The restaurant might institute a policy donating two percent of cash payments to the charity of the month. These donations are still less than credit card fees, so both the business and the charity fair better. Most importantly, a server can advocate for a societal cause as part of their customer interaction. “If you pay cash, we will donate two percent of your bill to a great nonprofit called the Carbon Economy Series that supports sustainable agriculture. I attended one of their events and am a big a fan or their work!” The restaurant might also invite the partner nonprofit to set up a table on the premises. With a few modifications, servers now make a positive societal impact through work.

Let’s try to job purpose another low-skilled job. If your team works in a call center, why not give them the option, when call volume is low, of making thank you calls to donors of partner nonprofits. A few midafternoon conversations in support of terminally ill children, unemployed veterans or other worthy causes will have them leaving work joyful that they made a difference.

What if you manage a team that delivers packages door-to-door in Florida? How might that job be purposed? Consider the possibility of having Nature Conservancy train interested drivers to spot and identify invasive snake species that cause extensive damage to the sensitive ecosystem. Imagine drivers keeping an eye out for Burmese Pythons as they drive (in a manner that doesn’t lead to distracted driving, of course). When they spot a Burmese Python, they notify the local authorities of the snake’s precise location. The authorities arrive and remove the snake from the environment. Thus, these drivers help rid the environment of a damaging species through their day job. They are modern-day dragon slayers.

Let’s try purposing yet another low-skilled job: housekeeping. In this case, consider offering your team members the opportunity to collect partially used bars of soap which you deliver to Clean the World, an organization that sterilizes, recycles and distributes soap to impoverished families across the globe. Now housekeepers have the option of helping, with every room they service, to help build a world in which preventable infections no longer kill more than 6,000 children every day.

What if you manage a team in entry-level retail jobs at a sports apparel company? How can their jobs be purposed? What if employees engaged customers in preserving the outdoors that they plan to enjoy sporting the hiking shorts they’re buying? The sales representative might ask the customer if they know that a proposed development will render nearby hiking trails barren of mountain goats. They might suggest the customer sign a petition — displayed as stylishly as the newest clothing — requesting that the mayor approve only sustainable development plans. These employees educate customers on caring for their high-tech clothing as well as for their natural surroundings. They work for a retailer as well as for the environment.

We can stop imagining now. These job purposing cases are real. They describe energetic teams at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe, LinkedIn, FedEx, Caesars Entertainment and Patagonia, respectively.

There’s little joy in managing a team whose work is fully defined as a paycheck generator. Luckily, you have the ability to purpose the jobs of those you manage. You have the power to make menial meaningful.

Whether your firm is in accounting, technology, construction, or any other industry, the practice of “job purposing” can integrate societal good into any job, no matter how unskilled or technical. Join us at SB’17 Detroit for further exploration of the science behind job purposing and practical lessons on bringing workplace purpose to life with spectacular results.

Bea Boccalandro
April 13, 2017

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