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Your Employees Want Purpose — Not Ping Pong Tables. Here’s How to Thrive Through the Great Resignation.

In 2008, two guys who rented a space in a Brooklyn warehouse would later go on to form WeWork, which after a $150 million investment in 2021, is now at the forefront of shared office models globally. Their open workspaces, including top-of-the-line productivity design features, cafes and hammock chairs, have inspired tech startups, law firms and investment banks alike.

From gyms to ping pong tables, companies are offering major perks to lure workers back to the office and slow down the effects of the Great Resignation. Uber’s new San Francisco headquarters is designed like a treehouse, with outdoor terraces and a wellness center featuring swing seats. Microsoft throws lawn parties with free food, a life-sized chessboard and a beer garden. Pandora’s break area and parts of Twitter’s California headquarters feel more like a nightclub than an actual workplace.

Are we even working anymore?

Better office plans and more perks are great, but they won’t solve the Great Resignation. Teammates don’t get up in the morning just to play ping pong at work. They want purpose and to be part of a mission that matters to them.

Perks aren’t motivators

Perks and better pay may make teammates more inclined to take a job, but they do little to ensure they come to stay. If you’re getting up in the morning for a paycheck or a ping pong table, chances are you’ll move on the next time a better paycheck or a cooler office comes along. Unless teammates are motivated by the mission of the organization and getting up in the morning out of desire and commitment to building a legacy itself, their connection to what they do is likely to remain tenuous and superficial. As we pivot from one generation to the next, instead of playing into the hype we need to understand the common denominator that keeps teammates at a job. This is where mission comes to the fore.

When teammates are aligned around a company mission, they make faster decisions with more autonomy because they understand how their individual roles contribute to it. In a recent survey, considerably fewer than half of those surveyed reported feeling connected to their company’s vision or sufficiently aware of the value they deliver; a similarly small proportion reported feeling any excitement about their jobs. This reflects the deepening sense of alienation afflicting many of our teammates, a sort of existential crisis related to mission and purpose.

Over time, aimlessness and lack of direction can compromise motivation, until teammates begin instinctively retreating from the difficult tasks required to achieve organizational goals. But better days are on the horizon if we start paying attention to what our teammates are trying to communicate about what actually gets them up in the morning (unsurprisingly, it is quite unrelated to ping pong tables). The survey cited above reveals that teammates regard a well-articulated sense of purpose as more than twice as important as conventional motivators like high pay and prospective promotions.

Teammates want purpose

After the pandemic, more teammates wanted their job or career to contribute to society and started to question their purpose at work. Employers may not believe themselves responsible for these changes, but ignoring them would be a mistake. As the founder of an oncology and rare disease think tank, I noticed that most new recruits joined the think tank table because it was an extension of their personal journey with cancer or rare disease. It had nothing to do with lucrative vacation pay, flexibility, family-style culture or attractive compensation.

Any organization can keep the teammates they find valuable and make them feel fulfilled with a cause worth rallying behind. Not all missions are so profound, but if McDonald’s could find employees excited to make their establishments a “favorite place and way to eat and drink,” and Nordstrom could build an entire team of people passionate about giving customers “the most compelling shopping experience possible,” they would probably never lose employees.

Leaders also need to let their teammates find purpose away from work. Letting teammates disengage from work is as important as keeping them engaged in the office. Space away from work allows for introspection and retrospection, and these skills improve business performance. When I made the choice to move my family to a farm, it was based on the idea of disengaging. It was hard work and took some getting used to, but the experience was invaluable. Fixing fences and keeping predators away taught us to be resourceful, to understand how the weather would impact planting or harvesting made us tune into something very abstract and in situations where we were not 100% in charge. The kids learned to explore more permanent things in life than the metaverse, and that not everything worth seeing was on a screen. This is not to say leaders should move their teams to live on a farm, but they can enable their team to disengage and be present in the world, so they can return refreshed and wanting to carry forward their collective mission.

What’s really driving this Great Resignation?

When it comes to the Great Resignation, teammates are offering more questions than answers: How responsible are organizations for helping employees strike a healthy work-life balance? Would more time for recovery and retreat reverse the resignation trend? Would that bring teammates back to the office in a more creative and productive frame of mind? How do we start reacting effectively to this trend? Probably not with office treehouses or ping pong tables.

The teammates who wanted to leave are gone and their reasons are broad, so we should start asking questions of those who have stayed. Why did they stick it out as others left in droves, and if they felt successfully tied to the company mission, how did that happen?

Being able to clearly define the collective raison d’etre and working toward building a legacy can be rewarding and empowering. Ensuring all members of the team own the responsibility of reaching the top of the mountain is critical. Given that most 22-year-olds no longer dream of a mortgage, car payment or staying at a job for 18 plus years like my father and I did, the answer remains elusive. In times of great uncertainty, having a clear mission can be a north star that shows us the way.

But you may also want to brush up on your ping pong skills, just to be safe.

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