No topic is as critical right now as employee engagement and motivation. Employees desperately want to feel engaged. Nine out of 10 people would take lower compensation to do more meaningful work. And engaged employees perform better, experience less burnout, and stay in jobs longer.
This translates to business success for companies that motivate and engage their people. There are, of course, many ways to encourage employee motivation and engagement—central among them is the creation of purpose-driven work cultures. But one often overlooked opportunity is service. Very few things are as positive for mental, spiritual, and physical health as service to others. Various studies have indicated that service to others is at the heart of creating meaning and purpose in one’s life. Research has also found that volunteering counters stress, combats depression, creates happiness, increases self-confidence, and even positively correlates with physical health. And we all know that we feel more fulfilled, happy, motivated, and engaged when we serve others.
The good news is that each of us, in our day jobs, has almost innumerable opportunities to serve. But it’s often challenging for us to see those opportunities and for companies to emphasize them. Our option is to reconceive our work as service and help our colleagues and employees do the same. This change in mindset can be transformational, and there are six key groups any of us can consider serving each day.
Clients or customers
At the core of every business is a customer. If it doesn’t serve that customer well, it will fail. And yet many of us feel distant from that customer in our day-to-day jobs. A medical device company’s accountant may never meet the people those devices are saving. And the procurement specialist at a theme park may not get to see the joy their rides create.
Finding ways to make this customer service real to employees is a core challenge for each person and every company’s leadership team. One executive I know did this by having customers speak at the company’s annual all-hands meeting, highlighting the difference the product had made in their lives. Professor Francesca Gino has written about various ways to achieve similar outcomes, including varying employee tasks and videos about their work’s impact on end clients. Regardless of approach, finding ways to see through an activity the effect it has on the customer is critical to a service mindset.
Nothing is more important to happiness and fulfillment than the depth and breadth of our positive relationships. And positive relationships at work are sorely lacking in many environments and essential to engagement where they exist.
What could it look like if every person in a company decided to serve the people, they work with the same way they serve clients? This may include managers learning how to better express gratitude to and recognize great employees. But the core of this mindset shift must be in every individual in a firm choosing to act in service to others each day. The results could be a relational revolution. And all it requires is a change of heart from one of self-centeredness or competition to one of encouragement and support.
Every organization exists in a community — a city, town, neighborhood, country, or state. Companies implementing community service programs experience several benefits, including better recruitment, development, engagement, and retention. And when structured to reflect the interests and passions of employees, these programs can lead to greater motivation among the workforce and a better reputation in the community!
This one is the hardest. For most people in a business, that business’s shareholders are some distant, often malicious force. But in reality, most of the capital that owns public companies comes from 401ks, defined benefit contribution plans, 529 plans, and similar programs funding the retirements or financial needs of regular people. And many private companies are structured similarly. While it’s likely never going to be as big a motivator as customers or colleagues, remembering that our work may serve the financial dreams and aspirations of people like us can make us feel better about the value we create.
Partners and vendors
Anyone who’s been a vendor or provider to another company knows that role can be challenging. Often, those we serve as clients take advantage of us, neglect us, and take out their frustrations on us. Therefore, when we are the clients dealing with the vendors and partners who serve us, we have an opportunity to act differently — and even to embrace an attitude of service to them. People or companies who become known for serving even their providers will benefit from more cordial relationships with those partners and truly differentiated reputations in the marketplace. When we act to help our providers, we can also feel better about our relationships with them.
People we love
We all work for a reason. Many of us work to support a family and to provide opportunities for them. Those without spouses or kids often work to help parents, siblings, or friends. And many people use the proceeds of their work to support causes and organizations about which they care deeply. Even on the hard days, we can take comfort in the fact that our work is an act of service to those we love
For service to be central to work, it has to permeate everything we do. It can’t be confined to off-hours volunteering — though that is important — instead must become a mindset with which we approach all our professional activities. Individuals who remember these daily opportunities for service will be happier and more fulfilled. And companies that promote them and keep them central to their culture will benefit from a more engaged and motivated workforce.