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The search for meaning in the workplace
Illustration by Shiwei Li

4 min read

The search for meaning in the workplace

Finding meaning in your job isn't as hard as you think. The trick is to understand your impact on your organization and those around you.

Have you ever faced an existential crisis at work? “Why am I here? Why am I doing this job? Does my work have any meaning? Who am I, really?” If this sounds familiar, you’re very much not alone.

According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review survey of 12,000 participants, half felt their job had “no meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission statement. Put another way, that’s 50% of employees who are convinced they’re working what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs: that is, “a job which seems so pointless that even the person doing the job secretly believes that it shouldn’t exist.”

Not to get all philosophical, but meaning will always be elusive in life and work—especially when you’re the person forced to populate cells on a neverending spreadsheet late into the wee hours of the night. Or when you’re not entirely sure what impact, if any, your role has on the company, or the world.

The feeling of meaninglessness can weigh heavy, particularly in large, enterprise-size organizations where you're more likely to feel like just another cog in a massive, complex machine.

But the truth is, the work you do every day does matter, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Even if it’s hard to pin down why or how exactly it fits into the grand scheme of things.

Let’s talk about how to find meaning in the workplace.

What’s your impact?

Okay sure, cosmically speaking, we’re all just motes of dust floating around aimlessly in a vast, infinite void, flickering in and out of existence. (Deep thoughts here on the Jostle Blog.) But on an organizational level, your work adds up to something bigger. The first trick is to understand your impact.

Defining your individual impact, whether that means your impact on colleagues or quarterly objectives or something else entirely, will depend on the nature of what you do, of course.

For example, a salesperson who brings in a big contract at the end of the quarter has a pretty clear way of defining their worth to the org: in dollars earned and contracts won. But for those of us in Spreadsheet Land, it’s not unusual to feel like a worthless speck of dust. Our impact and sense of worth might be a lot harder to define.

Untangling the complexity of organizations

Often times your impact is a mystery because your organization itself is a mystery.

Take a look at your org chart and try to make sense of it. Better yet, take a look around you. You might have a vague idea of what the people in your immediate vicinity are up to every day, but what about the department a few feet over, or the folks working out of the satellite office in New Jersey? How about that distant row of cubicles way off in the corner whose occupants prefer to work only in the dark, what are they working on?

If your organization’s an impossibly complex labyrinth, people will stop trying to make sense of it and accept their fate: disconnection, isolation, fragmentation. And once you begin to feel disconnected from your organization, that’s when things start to feel, well, meaningless. Empty.

I find that in order to feel more connected to the grand scheme of things, I need to venture out of my comfort zone and explore what other people are working on and how they’re impacting the business. Only then can I gain a clearer sense of how my organization operates and eventually find my place within it.

One way to go about this is to book meetings with department heads to better understand what they do, what they’re working on, and how your work plays into theirs.

During orientation at Jostle new hires undergo a similar fact-finding mission via meetings with all the department heads. The idea is to get everyone on the same page, working together and exchanging ideas, as soon as possible. That way, people can effectively pinpoint their work’s impact on the rest of the organization, and vice versa.

If you can make time for yourself to go exploring in your org, that's time well spent. I know it feels weird to go around asking people what they’re working on and it can be difficult to find common ground with someone whose job seems wholly unrelated to your own. But it’s an excellent way to gain a better understanding of where you fit in and how your organization operates holistically.

Building organizational awareness

An individual sense of connectedness is one way to create meaning in the workplace. But unless that connectedness is a shared value, it might not have much of an impact, org-wide. The majority of employees may be unwilling or unable to discover on their own what their colleagues are working on. That’s why one of the best things an employer can do to help their people find meaning is to build organizational awareness, to embed it into the company culture.

Let me explain.

Ever been to a trade show? I went to one once, a long time ago. It was a collection of company booths in an oversized convention hall, each trying to sell me a product or service I had no intention of purchasing. I decided, perhaps cynically, that trade shows were a big waste of time.

But a trade show is really about building awareness, right? The goal is, or should be, to grow your awareness of what others in your industry are up to: what they’re working on, who’s innovating, who’s not, etc. It’s also an opportunity to showcase what you’ve worked on to other industry professionals, and together, help move that industry forward.

Three times a year at Jostle we host an event we call JostleFest. It’s basically a miniature, org-wide trade show where everyone comes together (in an undersized lunch room) and we present what we’ve built over the last quarter, and what we’re working on next quarter. This event helps colleagues gain awareness of others’ work, demonstrate the impact of each team member, and find common ground between departments. More often than not, it turns into a massive brainstorm session, which benefits everyone involved.

The point of an exercise like this is literally to arm everyone with a higher level of awareness—of what’s happening, at any time, throughout the organization, and how each team member plays a role in the final product. In my opinion, true organizational awareness ought to be about bringing people together to demonstrate the value of their hard work.

Conclusion

You might be asking yourself what any of this has to do with your current existential crisis, your individual sense of meaning at work. The point I’m trying to make with all this is that the way we find meaning is inextricably tied to how we affect and relate to others, whether that’s in life or at work. By making our impact known and those connections more solid, we’re able to see how we fit in the grand scheme of things.

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Corey Moseley

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