Delivering excellence by aligning organisational purpose with employee values and aspirations

Finding meaning in your work is one of the most rewarding ways to spend your 9-5 as an employee. To achieve this, employers are increasingly trying to align company objectives with causes their staff care about, which in turn is helping them to attract and retain talent, while also propelling productivity through the pursuit of shared goals.

What matters now? After a year in which business and workforce normality was changed by COVID-19, we are all learning how to adapt accordingly. But with so much to reconsider, how will our values and priorities change?

As a shared experience, the COVID-19 pandemic has been as much a force for disruption as it is for transformation. Among countries, communities, businesses and families the fast-moving and unpredictable changes experienced, and those still to face, have tested both resilience and adaptability – creating an opportunity to pause, reflect and reinvent accordingly.

For many, 2020 has become a long-awaited reset button, from businesses rethinking their operating model, to individuals reevaluating what is most important to them across their personal and professional lives. We have retreated inwards to shield ourselves from the virus and protect our collective health, and at the same time we have also been afforded the opportunity to re-evaluate our motivations and aspirations.

The opportunity to reconsider the importance of our individual and collective purpose and reflect on why a sense of belonging to something and making a meaningful contribution is so fundamental to the experience of work, as well as a source of greater productivity and performance.

As businesses navigate the challenges of not only adapting to a new normal but driving improvements forward with innovation, such an approach to business planning must involve a revaluation of organisational values. This can be an opportunity to assess what matters to employees now and create strategies that align these values to organisational purpose, generating more opportunities for meaningful work and personal growth.

Organisational values as a guiding force

Anyone who has ever undertaken a large project, embarked on further education, or pushed themselves towards a goal which took great effort, dedication and perseverance, will know the rewarding sense of fulfilment, fuelling the motivation to do more.

Likewise, times of struggle also grant opportunities to learn, grow and develop. In 2020 the disruption and isolation caused by the pandemic have for many, provided the opportunity to ask existential questions about collective purpose and interdependence. It has also given individuals a moment in time in which to re-evaluate priorities, break negative habits, reimagine the future and establish new goals.

These objectives that we define for ourselves are the things that give our life meaning and motivate us. They are individual and they are completely subjective; they can be quite clear, or quite abstract, but they mean something to each of us.

As an employer, understanding the aspirations and values of your people is essential to both motivation and performance. So when individual objectives align with company objectives, it can be a powerful force for engagement, as people connect and commit to their work and their employer in a meaningful way.

This level of alignment between individual and company objectives can help both parties deliver above collective expectations, and create the foundation for excellence. However, there must be room for failure as well as success, so, how can employers empower their workforces in a way that gives this freedom, but within a safe environment?

Nikolaus von Hesler, Head of HR Spain at Siemens, says that fundamentals to their approach to work is the creation of a workforce that is fully behind what the company is trying to achieve, but that it is also critical to create an environment and culture that allows the necessary by-product of that journey; the option to fail:

“We understand that to innovate you have to fail all the time, so you have to be resilient to that, and learn to fail forward. Our values very much support this outlook; excellence, innovation, and responsibility. But we don’t see these things as inward looking. We do not aim for individual excellence, we aim for the products and services to be excellent. That requires collective excellence, and within that, each individual to be contributing at their best.”

Nikolaus von Hesler, Head of HR Spain at Siemens

Developing a workplace that can see the bigger picture is no mean feat. It requires vision, trust in employees, and dedicated resources to allow a long-term benefit to grow from a short-term resource commitment. The accelerated learning and leadership that employees can access in these types of organisations can create an invaluable fearlessness in the workplace.

While this is a longer-term strategy, having a clear set of values that people can get behind requires constant monitoring and re-alignment with their expectations based on wider factors. Nikolaus explains that creating a set of values that people live and breathe needs to be continually reviewed, reacting to economic, industrial and social factors in a way that allows the values to guide the company as to what to do next:

‘When the pandemic came we went straight back to our wider purpose to understand how Siemens could actively play a part in fighting the virus. We had to ask, “what type of company are we if we don’t react to this to help society?”

To alleviate workplace pressures and allow our people time to figure out how they could help, we changed project timelines so we could reallocate resources. We had a group of engineers, who did not usually work in healthcare, find a new, cheaper way of building ventilators, of which there was a worldwide shortage. One of the team had less than eight hours sleep in a single week to get this done because he knew lives depended on it. He didn’t have to do this, but he did because he found something he knew to be worth doing and that it would benefit everyone.’

While this level of sleep deprivation is not common practice or sustainable, it does demonstrate how strong values became a blueprint for Siemens employees to lead from the front in exceptional circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic allowed Siemens to do things it had never done before, and crucially, to embody its mission to help society as a whole.

Finding a place in the world

Understanding how one fits into the world can, for some, take a lifetime, but it is more important than ever. In fact, 84% of millennials say they are seeking purposeful work, with most people even willing to take a pay cut in order to do something more meaningful.

It is startling then to consider that 94% of employees say they would stay at their organisation if it invests in their career development, while only a third of all employers actually do, with nearly a half of over-55s saying they do not receive training and development at all. The situation is particularly bad when it comes to digital upskilling; highlighting the risk of paying lip-service to purported values and opportunities as part of attraction and retention exercises, only for these empty promises to become meaningless and a source of employee dissatisfaction.

Making the connection between the potential within a workforce and the steps that need to be taken to realise it is key for the workplaces of tomorrow. Those wishing to gain a competitive advantage by enhancing the productivity of their workforces, need to take action now if employees are not to be tempted by companies competing for their attention.

Nikolaus takes this one step further. He says that providing development opportunities can cover up what purpose really means, and that tying individual aspiration to broader social issues is what will bring the most out in people. In reality, people are not detached from the systems and networks they are a part of, and by helping the greater good, their efforts benefit everyone, including themselves:

‘We try to help people develop, regardless of where they are in their careers, by identifying their strengths and working with their talents. But part of this is recognising that finding purpose is not about yourself — it is bigger than you, otherwise, it’s not a purpose. We talk too much about self-worth and personal value. The problem is that this is very inward-looking, and by training people to isolate their goals from wider purposes, they will become disconnected. The sooner someone stops thinking about themselves, they can recognise the opportunities to help, and achieve things alongside other people. That is rewarding.’

Dora Horjus, Managing Director, Health at Aon, agrees that companies are starting to move away from an inward looking, return-on-investment attitude towards training and development:

“Opening the boundaries to how people want to grow and develop, and transforming away from typical ‘production’ mentalities where personal development was a route to institutionalisation and greater profit, is not the way forward. We need to ensure that what replaces older methods of learning supports this movement towards people finding their own way through their lives and careers, with support, and the awakening of their best selves, rather than instruction.”

Dora Horjus, Managing Director, Health at Aon

Purposeful, personal progress

Answering the very personal question of ‘why?’ in terms of career direction is difficult on its own. However, balancing the answer against personal interests and aspirations, as well as skills and competencies, the individual then has to define the end goal, find a business going in the same direction, and then ensure they are fulfilled in their lives outside of work.

What is more, the individual then finds that this is a life-long process of learning and growing that never actually ends. In achieving something, one does not find an end, only a new beginning, a point at which they have to answer the question: ‘what next?’ While self-realisation might be the ultimate goal, the environment, the parameters, and the individual all change continuously. Achieving goals then becomes a constant re-evaluation and adjustment to the world around. Purpose is not a single thing that defines an individual, nor is it a destination; it is a journey. Nikolaus agrees, and says current definitions and guidance towards a singular ‘purpose’ is misleading:

‘People don’t have one purpose, they have many. Tools have a single purpose. If you treat people in this way, you will soon find they don’t like being siloed, and they realise there are other things they could be helping with. The problem with encouraging purpose as an all-encompassing destination is that it won’t make them happy, and it is not something you can strive for. The only way our employees find agency in the world and have real dignity about themselves and their work is through the process of being.’

Furthermore, the key to resilience in this sense is not the ability to define and enact an objective, but to be able to adapt during that process as the wind changes, and then reimagine personal goals once the job is done. Without this, the employee may be left stranded by their inability to move on from their previous goal.

That said, many of the things that people crave are relatively simple. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, while sudden and disorienting for some, shifted the needle for many in terms of their wellbeing — positives driven mainly by the move to home working and a re-evaluation of what is important to them. To understand these drivers and wants, employers need to engage in a meaningful dialogue with their employees, enabling them to contribute ideas and provide creative solutions, while they in turn articulate purpose to their people in a way that resonates. Dora agrees, and says that there are many things employers can tell their employees about while making practical shifts towards better mindsets:

‘As a starting point, making people aware of solutions and choices available to them can make a huge difference. This may also mean readjusting where the business is headed, but in the long-term it will pay off. In the past, individuals mirrored their personal outlook with the business outlook; businesses have always seen their futures in terms of growing and expanding — getting bigger and ‘better.’ But they are having to go back to basics.’

What this means in real life

Dora raises how one of the greatest changes for employees in the current climate is social in nature. While the pandemic has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the workplace, people are adapting to connect the social and professional aspects of work in new ways:

‘We could not have expected at the start of 2020 that 90% of people would be working from home permanently. The differences are profound; we are talking about more work and in new contexts, with children and families in the background. Professionally, we are having more, or less meetings than we used to, but are having them in different ways. They have become more important socially, as that is the only way you can interact with others outside your home, making work a place for people to come together. This is having a real impact on how fulfilled and productive workforces are becoming.’

Physical fitness is also something employers have championed as a route to a more health-conscious, less sedentary workforce, that will take less time off through illness and ensure a certain level of productivity. While this has been adopted by many individuals, it is not for everyone. What is really important to people has become clear through the way they have spent their time in lockdown. Dora says that allowing a greater range of life aspects, and enabling employees to guide how they manage their personal and professional lives in tandem, people are finding the balance and meaning they have been looking for:

‘Physical wellbeing has been all about gyms for decades, and culturally this has been seen as the necessary approach to ensuring fitness. But while gyms were closed and everyone was at home, instead we have been taking our children on walks, or playing in parks or gardens. What we will see in return to work design and in the future, is this mix of old and new.’

Leading from the front

People evolve. They learn constantly from their experiences and change their expectations throughout life as the world changes around them. The productivity potential from an engaged, motivated, value-driven employee is unparalleled.

Developing a culture and mindset that allows growth for employees and the business is not easy, however, by building on what employers have learned throughout the pandemic, there are some guiding principles to consider when supporting a workforce to become more resilient and feel a greater sense of connection to their employer.

Create choice. Lots of it;

Everyone is an individual. Second-guessing what people really want or need is not easy and can leave certain groups disenfranchised. However, there are many cost-effective options available to all employers, with many of the benefits achievable simply by changing working practices and allowing more flexibility into the workplace.

Coupled with that, ensuring people know what is available to them is crucial if you want them to benefit. By enabling employees to make choices as to what is right for them you can guide them towards greater balance and security. Dora agrees that creating a foundation for wellbeing is crucial and that in the future there can be no excuses for not providing people with what they really need.

‘In terms of health benefits, we all need to know where we stand. We all need basic securities in life. In some countries, this is provisioned for by governments through social and healthcare services. But these basic liberties can be available for everyone and need to be if we are going to create truly resilient populations. In times of crisis these safety-nets are what we fall back on. Just having them there brings peace of mind.’

Listen. Just listen

In providing an array of options, employers can create the starting point of a well-provisioned wellbeing strategy. However, the world and employees constantly change; new technologies become available, financial pressures can mount, children are born and new interests develop.

As an employer, if your ear is to the ground you can hear the change coming. The improvement in people’s lives through home working was not a secret before the COVID-19 pandemic — most employees were asking for more flexibility in their work lives. Having heard, all that is left to do is act, Nikolaus aims to make meaningful change to working practices as their business embraces the ‘new normal’:

‘Going forward, our aim is to have no more than two days of office working. Commuting is a massive waste of time and energy and is an environmental waste too. We’re also finding new ways of doing the things that are important to us. We thought talent discussions would not be possible virtually, but we tried it and it worked better than it normally would. We can still do shadowing on calls to help people learn and progress, and we’re also looking at introducing more ways of collaborating digitally.’

Normalise flexibility. Break taboos

Depending on the culture and social norms, many of the changes for employees have been hard to swallow. Presenteeism can become stressful if the employee feels under scrutiny and is working away from the office.

But by communicating what is acceptable, and demonstrating care and commitment to making things better, employees will gradually accept these new liberties. The empathy that has been shown between colleagues across organisations worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic is proof that people can adapt quickly to better their own and others’ situations. Dora comments that what is deemed to be ‘acceptable’ is the highest hurdle here:

‘The biggest challenge is what is socially and culturally acceptable. Using work resources to learn on your own time, and working fewer hours overall, is a good thing if it raises overall productivity — but many are nervous to do it. What is unique about COVID-19, is that we are all experiencing its effects, so can all have a good perspective on it. The lessons we are learning collectively and at the same time, can be the foundations on which we build a world we want, rather than one we have inherited.’

In summary, creating a world where people can make their own decisions about what is important to them while enabling them to find balances they need, will ensure that people find meaning in their lives. Coupling individuals with companies that share the same values is vital if they are going to be as productive as they can be and not only adapt as the world changes, but lead the company forward, creating future successes and reshaping values along the way.

Dora says that having exposed the reduced effectiveness of the old ways of working, as well as how unsatisfactory they were to people, now is the time for businesses to think again about how they are set up for the future and how their people strategies can be changed for the benefit of all:

‘For a long time we occupied ourselves with the nice-to-haves, telling ourselves and those around us they were essential when they were not. Fitting everything in will be difficult, but more and more countries and companies are taking a productivity point of view, and considering that four-day working weeks and basic state wages are a real route to greater productivity and wellbeing.’

A positive culture like this can permeate an entire business and carry it through inevitable challenges ahead. Nikolaus says that at Siemens the effect on the entire working community, at every level, is affected by the company’s mission to provide outstanding products and services and will allow the business to excel for decades to come:

‘Regardless of where the employee is in the organisation, our people have great pride in what they do because there is a link between what is important to them, and what is important to us. They have found a place and a way of working and as a result, are happy to create excellent products. We’re lucky to have a workforce that appreciates a job well done, regardless of their role in the organisation — that is not to be underestimated.’

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