A couple of years ago, I found myself at one of those career-defining crossroads. I had a decision to make – and that decision ultimately led to me co-founding Q4 Associates. What became clear to me over this time was that I wanted to work for the next ten or so years on something I like doing, with people I liked working with, while also feeling like I was making a difference.

Luckily I know the nature of the work I like doing. Lots of people don’t. Whether they’ve not thought about it consciously, or they’ve never had a framework for considering what they love and loathe about the work that they do, I’m not sure. But what I do know is that this has significant implications when the world of work is changing so rapidly.

We’ve moved well past vague notions of workplace wellness, to increased awareness of mental health in the workplace; the World Health Organisation has, just last year, upgraded the classification of burnout to an occupational syndrome. There’s greater dependence on technology than ever, more flexible and remote work options, and studies showing the benefits of a shorter work week. The focus on climbing the career ladder has abated as attitudes towards work change, and AI is transforming the way that some work functions are performed. 

I often talk to organisations about the importance of focusing on the people side of a digital workforce implementation. Too often the human element is overlooked and people and organisations become way out of alignment. It’s true that in removing some of the mundane or repetitive aspects of work, a digital workforce has the ability to free people up for the work they are most excited to do. However, it’s also been my experience that we need to more proactively help people understand what it is that they actually love doing.

Amidst an ever-increasing emphasis placed on the traits of good leaders, this is vital. The fact is, you can go on as many leadership courses as you like and understand all the required ‘skills’, but if your people don’t want to be there, it still won’t work. I know it won’t take much of a stretch for you to imagine the difference if all the people you were leading knew what they liked and wanted and had found that in their role. (And conversely, the ones that weren’t being catered for in their role had gone on to find something more meaningful to them!)  

Why do we care as we enter 2020?

In the last six weeks or so, many of us will have experienced the period of reflection that happens naturally over the holiday break. I believe that as we kick off a new year, and a new decade, the search for meaning at work is felt ever more acutely. Most people don’t want to plod through life, going to work and then coming home to wait until the next day when they get to do it all over again. We want to feel a sense of purpose.

The (originally 1970s, but now annually updated) job-hunting bible ‘What Color Is Your Parachute?’ makes the distinction between two different types of job search. First is the traditional job hunt, which is a matching game that marries your experience with a similar role to what you’ve been doing. The other option is the life-changing job hunt, which is described as an exploration to find a new kind of work and bring a sense of mission to life.

While back then, and even at the turn of this century, it was believed that each time you changed job or role you could choose which of these methods you engaged in, people are increasingly likely to explore the more life-changing form of job hunt now. Because of this, I see that the role of leadership within organisations needs to focus more on helping people figure out what they really want to be doing, and finding ways to empower that through automation and the other innovations that are revolutionising the way we work. 

A shift in focus

Organisations that are doing this well are keeping people firmly at the heart of their transformation. As opposed to merely refining their technology, or tarting up a few processes and procedures, they are consciously and proactively considering their workforce operating model and how this will need to change. They are considering the impact on people, how they need to communicate changes, and the business opportunities that they are unlocking.

Beyond a focus purely on automation as a way of cutting the number of heads on the payroll, these organisations are enjoying the pay-offs of protecting their people. Sure, you may not need as many people once you have a handful of robots successfully deployed and working efficiently. However, natural attrition occurs as a result of stepping people through a process to examine what it is they really want in their work. People who are not as well-suited to being there will leave, and you’ll be left with those who are both passionate about, and capable of, having a true impact.

My own creation of a framework

Some years ago, I was managing a team at a larger IT consulting organisation, and talked to many of our people who were unsure if they were doing the right job. They might now be working as a business analyst after having tried project management – but the majority had taken opportunities as they presented, without much examination of how the change fit with their personality and preferences. I set out to create a tool that could help the other people in our team.

Back then I believed that there were three reasons that people go to work. First, there’s the environment of the workplace itself. This could be the leadership of the organisation, the colleagues you get to work with, or the physical space of your place of work. And this all combines to help or hinder your feelings towards a job or role.

The next relates to the type of work you do – not strictly the role or the specific tasks, but the nature of them. Are you solving problems, collaborating and conversing with people, helping people, negotiating deals, cracking code, or crunching numbers? Are you following something through right to its outcome and for the long-term, or coming up with new ideas or innovations constantly? How does the type of work you do align to your preferences?

Lastly, there is the matter of rewards. These are monetary, of course – however, reward is also about praise, recognition, flexibility, perceived status, and your feelings about the impact you’re able to have or the difference you’re able to make.

Later I read a story by a consultant who had been sent in to talk to a factory floor worker, Lucy, about a promotion. Lucy was a diligent worker who showed real potential and she had caught the eye of the leadership team who had already offered her a promotion several times. She had politely declined them. It was the consultant’s job to figure out why Lucy wasn’t taking them up on their seat at the leaders’ table.

This consultant learnt that Lucy was passionate about sports and had two local teams that she was coaching. She felt that if she moved up in the organisation she would lose the time that she currently had available for coaching. In other words, the promotion wasn’t in line with the other aspects of her life that she valued. After reading this, I revised my three factors to include a fourth: how congruent – or not – the work is with our other goals in life.

With my four factors in mind, I created a couple of questions that sat under each and compiled these on a worksheet for each of my team. I’ve made this sheet available as a free download here too. I explained that it wasn’t for them to fill in and give back to me, but that they could use it to figure some things out for themselves and they could then choose whether they wanted to discuss any of it with me or not.

The story of Lucy highlights her as one of the minority, in that she had worked out what her mission or purpose was. Don’t fret if you haven’t yet; there are heaps of resources – like Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ – that can help you do so. Whether you have your own concrete goals or not, the exercise of understanding what you need from, and value about, your work is still well worth doing.  

As for my team? They were able to uncover the things that were most important to them, before going back through the list to highlight the show-stoppers. We had far more meaningful conversations about their work, career, and personal development plans following that.

These are the levels of conversations that need to be taking place within businesses as they implement transformational changes. People need not be the collateral damage of technology tools and transformation. In revolutionising work in a positive way, it’s possible to arrive at a place where people, organisations, and society can live, work, and function in a healthy, meaningful, and efficient manner.

It is one of my goals this year to foster more of an ecosystem of people sharing ideas, information and knowledge, so please share your thoughts below. I would love to hear of any other tools or frameworks you have used to steer you in finding purpose in your work.