Building a fulfilling employee experience

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Prioritize a meaningful work experience. The time to take action is now.

More than ever, people want to know they’re more valuable than machines and are seeking out uniquely human elements of their work experience. If we want to tap into what helps people find meaning at work, how do we do it? When we explored this question, we uncovered scientific support, employee perspective, and bright spots to show how to move the needle in building a more fulfilling employee experience.

The evolution of work and the employee value proposition

We are in the early days of a new era—called by many names, from the Purpose Economy (Aaron Hurst) to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Klaus Schwab)—where a higher sense of meaning and purpose in work are sources of innovation and the core narrative of the workplace. The development of neuroscience and positive psychology have advanced this change, and artificial intelligence and automation promise to accelerate it. In this new world of work, it is fulfillment - the ability to feel a personal sense of purpose and meaning - that is the new standard for employee engagement.

Defining a fulfilling employee experience

Fulfillment is a feeling we have when we are working in alignment with our intrinsic motivations and gain a sense of purpose. The feeling is biologically generated by two neurochemicals, oxytocin and dopamine, which the brain releases to help reward behaviors that are valued for our survival.

An extensive body of research shows that our brain chemistry motivates us in a number of positive ways. “We are wired to connect…and our feelings of belonging and connectedness are correlated with oxytocin levels in the brain,” says Dr. Britt Andreatta, author of Wired to Grow and Wired to Connect. “We are also hard-wired to grow and improve. Dopamine supplies the motivation.” When these chemicals are present during the workday, employees will be far more than satisfied—they will thrive. In fact, fulfilled employees plans to stay at their current employer nearly three years longer in total than their less fulfilled counterparts.

Relationships, Impact, and Growth

Three hallmarks of a fulfilling experience at work:

  1. Relationships – A sense of belonging and connection to others
  2. Impact – Progress towards a goal we believe in
  3. Growth – Personal challenge that we overcome

"Our well-being is directly connected to our fulfillment – the quality of our relationships, our sense of significance from making an impact, and the challenge of growth."

Dr. Britt Andreatta

As work-life boundaries continue to blur, employees are seeking opportunities to explore and pursue what gives them purpose. In an earlier PwC survey, 83% of employees identified “finding meaning in day-to-day work” as a top priority (Source: Putting Purpose to Work, PwC 2016). And, if employees can’t find purpose and fulfillment in their current job, they may look elsewhere. Seven of ten employees surveyed said they’d consider leaving their current role for a new, more fulfilling opportunity, with one out of three willing to consider lower pay for it (Source: CECP, Imperative, PwC’s Fulfillment at Work survey, 2018).

Taking action: If a fulfilling employee experience is the new standard, how do we create it?

Make space for employees to create meaning

While the organization provides the right environment for a fulfilling employee experience, it’s the employees who shape how to make work more meaningful for themselves. Indeed, an astounding 82% of employees agree that it is primarily their own responsibility, and 42% say that they are their own greatest barrier to finding fulfillment at work (Source: CECP, Imperative, PwC’s Fulfillment at Work survey, November 2018). Ultimately, workers themselves hold the key to understanding their motivations, and organizations can support them in unlocking this insight through tools such as digital assessments and personal exploration exercises that facilitate needed reflection. This up-front work to identify employees’ personal sources of fulfillment informs the opportunities they seek out and create for themselves in the name of meaningful work.

Provide structure—but not too much

Finding meaning is a personal endeavor, and personalization is hard to scale. With some structure—but not too much—employees can make work more meaningful for themselves while still supporting the collective goals of their team and organization.

Formal employee programs or initiatives—such as rotational opportunities, innovation labs, stretch assignments, reverse mentorship and milestone experiences—help employees build deeper and more diverse relationships while also promoting growth. For employees to make an impact that is meaningful to them, there needs to be room for them to interpret the impact they can make. Some employees do their best work when they see how their work is impacting another individual; others may need to ladder up their impact to a grander scale. When teeing up new opportunities, be clear on the desired outcomes and leave room for people to internalize the kind of impact that is most meaningful to them. For personalization to scale, there needs to be just enough of a framework within which employees can craft work that is meaningful to them.

Don’t ignore the role of culture

It’s no secret that culture plays a critical role in supporting an organization’s strategy and purpose as well as shaping the employee experience. Evolving an organization’s culture—defined as “the way we do things around here”—can provide ongoing reinforcement and support for employees seeking greater meaning in their work. While culture is much more a matter of doing rather than saying, organizations that want to evolve their culture to be more purpose-led need to focus on a vital few elements:

  • Target specific behaviors that promote relationships, impact, and growth
  • Embolden leaders to model and signal these behaviors to others across the organization
  • Identify influencers—or authentic informal leaders—who can energize those around them and create momentum around a purpose-driven culture

We know that a staggering number of employees—96% of survey respondents—believe fulfillment at work is possible, and they need to see and feel what it looks like in practice (Source: CECP, Imperative, PwC’s Fulfillment at Work survey, November 2018). Recognizing that fulfillment is deeply rooted in relationships and a sense of belonging, making an impact, and growing/developing, we can articulate critical behaviors that will foster and sustain a purpose-driven culture.


To read more on culture change, check out:

10 Principles of Organizational Culture

Leaders are critical in signaling and modeling the behaviors that enable a fulfilling employee experience. Senior leaders and authentic, informal leaders alike can be powerful allies in influencing these behaviors and providing concrete examples of what fulfillment looks like. While each organization will need to determine the right mix of top-down, cross-organization, and peer-to-peer efforts to elevate meaningful experiences, our research emphasized the need for role modeling at the executive leadership level, with nearly one third of respondents naming senior leaders as a barrier to finding fulfillment at work.

Examples of behaviors supporting fulfillment

Relationships/belonging

  • Invest time to get to know your team and colleagues on a personal level
  • Promote open communication about others’ priorities, timeline and objectives
  • Recognize individuals for a job well done

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Impact

  • Express Share an end-to-end view of how everyone’s piece fits into thebigger picture and understand interdependencies
  • Define crystal-clear objectives for solving the problem at hand
  • Reward delivery of results, not only activity

View more

Growth/development

  • Tolerate and celebrate mistakes and create safe space for your people to learn from them
  • Give and ask for feedback to improve yourself and others
  • Dare your team to challenge the status quo and try new things

View more

Get intentional with team building

While our research reflected that individuals recognized their responsibility for finding fulfilling experiences at work, getting employees to come together for ongoing, shared experiences can accelerate this process while building stronger teams. Shared experiences can be formative and fulfilling when they bring employees together in a way that builds meaningful connections, makes a collective impact, and offers opportunities to learn something new.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from “The Serious Fun of Shared Experiences at Work" from strategy+business.  © 2016 PwC. All rights reserved. PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see www.pwc.com/structure for further details. www.strategy-business.com

Experiences that are new or challenging can encourage employees to show bursts of vulnerability that build trust and develop an emotional commitment to those around them. For example, part of PwC’s experience consulting team, The Difference, uses play and improvisational exercises that are engineered to create meaning, such as challenging a team that is tackling a post-merger integration to design a restaurant and perform a skit on their vision in a very condensed amount of time. Parallels between the design of the restaurant and the post-merger challenges become evident, and by taking off their professional hats through a playful activity, participants reveal a more personal, vulnerable side of themselves. This increases emotional intelligence and individuals learn more from one another. This closeness creates and deepens relationships, a key source of fulfillment.

New and challenging experiences also create opportunities for employees to grow—whether it’s building self-awareness or learning a new skill. Stress can play a positive role when such experiences are meaningful and reflect a clear purpose. An element of stress might include a time constraint or little guidance provided, but with a defined goal. The combination of growing and making a collective impact in such an environment can become a formative experience for those participating.

Make employee surveys more meaningful

Peter Drucker, founder of modern management, famously said, “what gets measured, gets managed.” As we progress in this new economy and focus on tapping into employees’ sense of purpose, a set of new metrics for measuring employee sentiment are sure to emerge. While methods for capturing a fulfilling employee experience will vary by organization, they should aim to evaluate how well employees feel their work provides the three foundational elements of fulfillment: a sense of belonging, creating value beyond oneself, and personal growth. Considering how well your current survey addresses these items is the first crucial step to capturing data that will enable your organization to take action toward a more meaningful experience for employees.

The standard battery of engagement questions does address certain elements of meaning and fulfillment—either directly or indirectly—so you may be capturing some useful information already. Recognizing that an overhaul of enterprise-wide engagement surveys is not likely in the short-term, consider starting your organization’s journey to a culture of purpose by including three simple questions—or doubling down on existing similar ones—on your next employee survey:

  1. Do you have meaningful relationships at work?
  2. Are you growing personally and professionally at work?
  3. Is your work making an impact that is meaningful to you?

Gauging employee fulfillment is a strong first step, and finding ways to formally incorporate goals for these metrics into broader organizational objectives will ensure accountability for managing toward a more purpose-driven workforce.

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Abby Brennan

Senior Manager, PwC US

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