As a manager, how do you feel when one of your employees mentions that he is “only in it for the money?” Not great, right? So at a time when employers are straining to meet the expectations of millennial employees, it’s fascinating when so many companies assume that generous financial compensation is all that’s needed to maintain employee satisfaction. While financial reward is an important component, studies show that the best employees are highly motivated not just by money, but by a strong sense of purpose and meaning in their work.

Establishing a workplace that gives employees satisfaction is not as simple as passing out raises. In just four years, our lean startup built a company culture that retains employees nearly three times longer than the industry average and was named AdAge’s Best Place to Work in 2015. By following a few simple steps, you too can create an office culture that has employees excited to walk through the front doors every morning. Here are five principles we followed to establish a highly effective working environment.

  1. Remind your employees of the purpose of their work.
  2. Recognize the impact and significance of their work on the lives of others.
  3. Make sure your employees understand they are valuable.
  4. Each employee cannot individually transform his or her job into a role that is purposeful and meaningful. The employer’s help is needed to accomplish this.
  5. Every job improves the lives of customers and clients, though it may require some work on the employer’s part to communicate this.
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Helping your employees find meaning in their work can improve retention and help them find greater fulfillment. Image via freeimages.com

What’s the Reward?

If you are like me, you probably see several stories pass through your news feed every week about high-earning tech and finance workers who leave it all behind to join a startup that promises nothing but low salaries, long hours, and lots of risk. Perhaps you’ve lost a few of these employees yourself. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of Why We Work and a popular TED talk on employee satisfaction, says that “humans have an innate need to feel valued, and that what they are doing means something.” Material rewards alone ultimately fall short of making an employee feel valued. Instead, employers should help employees develop a sense of purpose and meaning in the work they do.

Where We Find Purpose

According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, research suggests that people who give the most to others also deem their lives most meaningful. Schwartz agrees with Aaker, and suggests that “people want meaning in what they do, which often comes from the role their jobs play in improving lives in their community or society. You find nobility in what you do when you see how your work is improving the lives of others.”

So, we have an innate need to feel valued, and we derive the most value from a feeling of connection to others, or to something bigger than ourselves.

The flip side is also true: people who feel their work lacks meaning are more likely to slack off or feel dissatisfied with their employer. In fact, most people feel this way about work. 50% of people surveyed responded that they lack a sense of meaning at work. Those who did find work meaningful are 3 times more likely to stay with their company, experience 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and are 1.4 times more engaged at work. Money and financial rewards are clearly not the only, or even the best, way to sustain employee satisfaction and retention.

It would be unfair to expect employers to help every employee find meaning and significance in his work. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over the previous year, approximately 2.7 to 2.8 million employees quit their jobs each month. A recent report from Deloitte, based on surveys and interviews with more than 3,300 business and human resources leaders from 106 countries, concluded that culture, engagement, and understanding how to engage and empower people was a top concern for employers. If you’re trying to retain your top employees, you have a vested interest in helping them to establish a stronger emotional connection to their work.

A Case Study: MT Changemakers

As a digital advertising agency with clients spread around the world, Metric Theory employees don’t usually see the direct impacts of their work. For this reason, we go out of our way to remind everyone, once per quarter, how important our efforts are to our clients.

MT Changemakers is how Metric Theory highlights one or several employees’ positive impacts on a client’s business and, ultimately, the larger world. The Changemakers presentation takes place every quarter during MT’s regular all-hands meeting. One or several account managers discuss with the entire company how their efforts positively impacted a person, a company, or the rest of the world.

One Metric Theory account manager, for example, significantly increased revenue for a small baking company that used a percentage of its sales to send birthday cakes to military personnel serving overseas. Thanks to her outstanding account results, tens of thousands of additional soldiers received cakes. Another group of managers helped to grow a small, eco-friendly clothing company, ultimately contributing to greater social and environmental responsibility within the global apparel industry. Several other account managers helped small family-owned businesses reach profitability, recover from unexpected setbacks, or hire new employees to handle additional demand.

The MT Changemakers program allows Metric Theory and its employees to take a step back from the “dollars and cents” mindset of our day jobs, and to understand how our employees are making positive impacts on the world we live in. And by sharing their stories with the entire company, the Changemaker celebrates the successes that Metric Theory has achieved for our clients, and energizes us for another quarter of great performance.