Creating Meaning in Day-to-Day Work

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Chip Conley

For the doctors, policemen, and teachers of the world, finding daily meaning probably isn’t that difficult. But, for the rest of us, sometimes it takes a change in our perspective. Robert Stephens, the founder and “Chief Inspector” of the Geek Squad, the tech service company that was purchased by retail giant Best Buy to help service the home technology needs of its customers, says “The Geek Squad is not going to cure cancer but we will repair the computers of people who do.”

One of the best approaches I’ve ever seen with respect to making this linkage between what we do daily, and what the company does, was profiled in the book Resonant Leadership. Summa Health Systems of Akron, Ohio, spent quite a bit of time interviewing its employees to understand what gives meaning to them before creating the following statement on a wallet-sized card that all employees carry with them:

You are Summa. You are what people see when they arrive here. Yours are the eyes they look into when they’re frightened and lonely. Yours are the voices people hear when they ride the elevators and when they try to sleep and when they try to forget their problems. You are what they hear on their way to appointments that could affect their destinies. And what they hear after they leave those appointments. Yours are the comments people hear when you think they can’t. Yours is the intelligence and caring that people hope they find here.

If you’re noisy, so is the hospital. If you’re rude, so is the hospital. And if you’re wonderful, so is the hospital. No visitors, no patients, no physicians or coworkers can ever know the real you, the you that you know is there—unless you let them see it. All they can know is what they see and hear and experience.

And so we have a stake in your attitude and in the collective attitudes of everyone who works at the hospital. We are judged by your performance. We are the care you give, the attention you pay, the courtesies you extend.
Thank you for all you’re doing.

If you’re a Summa employee, you have a good sense that everything you do touches both the customer (the patient) and the reputation of the organization. Summa has done a masterful job of defining their employees’ work by its purpose and not by its task. When employees think of their work from the perspective of the ultimate purpose, as opposed to the specific job description, they are able to see their role as more expansive and more linked to the organizational mission. Thus, the organizational success is their success and a genuine sense of accomplishment can result for the employee.

N.Y.U. Professor Amy Wrzesniewski has built quite a reputation on her theory of “job crafting,” or revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Job crafting is a means of both changing the tasks and the relational perspective of an employee to their work such that the employee feels more control over their job and a deeper connection to the organizational mission. Wrzesniewski cites a number of studies that show how job crafting can create meaning in what an employee does day-to-day. One particularly interesting study relates to how nurses were moved from a role as a task master to the role of “patient advocacy” and, in doing so, the nurses were both more satisfied in their jobs and more effective in their delivery of care. For those of you who want to understand how job crafting can help you turn your employees’ work into a calling, I recommend you do an internet search to obtain a copy of the article.

One of the ways that Joie de Vivre tries to expand our employees’ perspective on what they do is to ask them to spend the night in one of our other hotels. Each of our employees is invited to stay for free twice a quarter at a Joie de Vivre property. It’s remarkable how fresh one’s perspective becomes when we move from being the employee to being the customer. Front desk hosts realize just how important that “moment of truth” is when the guest arrives at the front desk for the first time. The housekeeping staff realizes how vacuuming in the hallways before 8 a.m. can disturb a guest’s sleep. Bellmen come to appreciate how the banter of conversation that goes on with the guest on the way to his room allows the bellmen to become a “listening post” for how the hotel staff can address the guest’s specific and unique desires during the course of their stay.

It’s all about creating fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. Nike’s Chief of Design John R. Hoke III was profiled in Business Week magazine about how he created inspiration for his designers. Hoke sends them on design inspiration trips: to the zoo to observe and sketch animals’ feet, to a lecture on Dale Chihuly’s fancifully-colored glass sculptures, to the Detroit auto show to understand the form and silhouettes of cars, or to an origami class to understand the structural constraints of the ancient Japanese art form.

Creating meaning in the day-to-day work of cleaning toilets or designing shoes may be less about improving the specific work conditions – assuming they are in satisfactory shape – and more about changing the perspective of your people. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. The more you can create peak experiences – whether it’s coming face-to-face with an appreciative customer or building a sense of deep community amongst your people – the more likely your employees will see the meaning in what they, and the company, do.


Here are a few ideas for how you can spread a sense of meaning in your workplace:

(1) Create an exercise that helps your employees understand just how much they impact the customer experience. At each monthly new hire orientation, I start my hour with the employees doing an exercise called “Name Your Favorite Shop.” This icebreaker asks the employees to think about a service experience that was so great they told a bunch of friends about it. Employees share experiences of restaurants, dry cleaners, and clothing shops where they received “knock your socks off” service. We talk about how that kind of service makes us feel as a person. Then, I ask them to tell us about an experience in which they felt completely neglected or even discriminated against. The employees share the idea that bad service makes them feel either really big and angry or very small and invisible. We all agree that those emotions don’t feel good. The purpose of this exercise is to create a point of connection between these new employees. We all share the experience of being a customer every day, and this exercise shows what kind of impact we in the service business can have on someone else’s day. Another exercise that some of our general managers use at monthly staff meetings is to read aloud a couple of thank you letters from hotel guests who had a particularly wonderful experience at the property. 

(2) Ask questions that remind your employees about the hidden value of “meaning.” Like self-actualization, meaning is a relatively intangible concept. It isn’t something that employers and employees naturally talk about. We have found that the best way to make the issue of meaning tangible is through asking provocative questions of employees in either staff meetings or one-on-one during their employee reviews. Questions like:

• “What’s the best experience you’ve had in the past month here at work?”
• “We provide hotel services for travelers. Why is that important?” Gently ask that question five times repeatedly and you will get down to the fundamental purpose of what you are offering your customers. You could do this for any business. For example, “We are an executive search firm for people looking to change jobs. Why is that important?” Each time you ask the question, it will force the employee to probe a little deeper into why your company makes a difference.
• “If you did your job badly, how would that affect your coworkers and our customers?” Sometimes pointing out just how valuable an employee’s role is helps them have more of a sense of meaning in what they do.
• “Forget about your current job title. What would our customers call your job title if they described it by the impact you have on their lives?”
• “Most of us think of our job in terms of ‘what am I getting?’ Ask yourself instead ‘what am I becoming as a result of this job?’”

(3) Create peak experiences for your employees that build their sense of community with each other. We organize a number of events that help build the sense of affiliation in the workplace. Our annual housekeepers’ luncheon is one of my favorites, as we bring hundreds of housekeepers—speaking seven or eight native languages—into a ballroom, where managers and senior executives in the company help serve them lunch and tell them just how much they mean to the company. Beyond just creating a cool uniform (the retro “short pants, clip-on tie” look), Best Buy’s Geek Squad has created many ways for their techies to grow a sense of affiliation even though they are spread across the country. Their “agents” started getting their driver’s license photos taken in their uniforms and then created a Flicker website where they could share photos of themselves with celebrities, in parades, and at play. Founder Robert Stephens says that one of the most effective means of creating meaning for their employees has been giving them the sense of being part of a truly special tribe.

(4) Make a list of the 10 reasons people should join your organization. Early on, Google recognized that they needed to attract and retain talent in the very competitive Silicon Valley job market. So, they created a top ten list of why people should join them, with not one of those ten reasons being related to stock options or compensation. They have reasons like “Life is beautiful. Being part of something that matters and working on products in which you can believe is remarkably fulfilling.” And “Boldly go where no one has gone before. There are hundreds of challenges yet to solve. Your creative ideas matter here and are worth exploring.” Our People Department was so impressed with Google’s list that we created our own with the focus being on the intangible peak of the pyramid elements that make the Joie de Vivre employment experience different.

(5) Ask disengaged employees to start a “gratitude journal” to help them build a sense of connection with the organization and what they do. Abraham Maslow wrote, “Gratitude is an extremely important but badly ignored aspect of emotional and organizational health.” Studies have shown that those who keep weekly journals of things they feel grateful about felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the upcoming week, compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. Your most challenged employees may have some mental obstacles to doing this, but helping them see that there are many things—both in life and at work—that they could be grateful for (including those catastrophic things that haven’t happened), can increase their job satisfaction and sense of meaning. Paying a gratitude visit to thank someone who’s made a difference in our life or in our job has been proven to be one of the best ways to increase our satisfaction with life. If your employee resists all these alternatives, remind them that studies have shown the restaurant bills on which the server writes “thank you” produce tips that are 10% higher than those without an expression of gratitude. Gratitude doesn’t just make you feel better—it has positive economic and career consequences, too.

I know this meaning stuff isn’t easy to talk about in most workplaces. But, we’re all familiar with popular films that show the difference one person can make on others. If employees are feeling apathetic, rent them Mr. Holland’s Opus, Schindler’s List, or It’s a Wonderful Life and see whether that sparks some meaningful inspiration in them.

Congratulations, we’ve made it to the peak of the Employee Pyramid. Hopefully your lungs are acclimating to the high altitude. Most companies don’t spend much time in this rarified place because executives have a hard time measuring meaning. Traditional HR departments worry about the legalities of discussing something that verges on spirituality. Most managers don’t contemplate the difference between a job, a career, and a calling. No doubt about it, though, creating employee meaning can be your secret weapon in differentiating yourself from your competition. But, remember that meaning can mean different things in different parts of the world, so what worked in your American division might not work as well in Japan or India.

Don’t forget that focusing on the top of the pyramid is what you do once you’ve satisfied the money and recognition needs of your employees. If you have a weak foundation for your Employee Pyramid—as is true in many nonprofit organizations—at some point, even if your mission is full of meaning, your employee will have to leave you in order to pay the rent or feel individually recognized somewhere else.

About the Author(s)

Chip Conley is the founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, California’s largest boutique hotel company consisting of 40 award-winning hotels, spas, and restaurants. In PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, he tells his story of survival in turbulent times and illustrates the theory that transformed his business and can be seen working today in companies from Amazon to Whole Foods Market. Conley is a popular speaker, committed philanthropist and member of the Global Business Network and Young President’s Organization. He received his BA and MBA from Stanford University.