The Role of People Experience Teams in Enabling Meaningful work

Making the case for a shift away from traditional HR


Have you ever dreaded the question, “what do you do?”.  The internet is filled with criticisms of this question and offers an abundance of alternative options to ask instead. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, considering the majority of people feel detached from, and unenthusiastic about, the thing they spend most of their waking hours working.

In fact, in 2017, Gallup reported that worldwide, 2 out of every 3 employees were not engaged, and 1 in 5 employees was actively disengaged in their role

This is actually staggering. 

Put another way, if your organisation has 100 employees, it’s likely that only 16 of them will be actively engaged, and feeling “involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace” (pg. 22).  

If that concerns you, and you’re asking yourself how we could improve this statistic, read on.

How meaningful work engages employees

By finding ways to make work meaningful for people, so they’re able to passionately answer the “what do you do” question, we could be doing much better with this statistic (Bedarkar & Pandita, 2014)

Meaningful work, work that is perceived as significant and worthwhile to the employee (Lysova et al., 2019), is not only a way to engage employees, there are a number of other benefits to both employer and employee which are hard to ignore. 

Positive outcomes of meaningful work

For the organisation

For the employee

  • job performance
  • organizational citizenship behaviour
  • work engagement and commitment
  • lower rates of turnover
  • less counterproductive behaviours
  • job and life satisfaction
  • life meaning
  • general health
  • heightened motivation, hope, efficacy
  • better work relationships
  • lower rates of burnout and stress

Source: (Allan et al., 2018; Jing Hu & Hirsh, 2017)

Along with this, It is becoming increasingly recognised that organisations have an ethical obligation to provide the basic conditions that cultivate a meaningful workplace (Michaelson et al., 2014)

Why? Because working in a meaningless role has been correlated to psychological suffering (Schnell & Hoffmann, 2020)

Given the importance of such an environment, the fostering of meaningful work for employees should not be left to chance –– it should be an intentional part of the business strategy.

What makes work meaningful?

This question isn’t entirely straightforward to answer, as there is no one size that fits all; what makes work meaningful is highly personal (Schabram & Maitlis, 2017).

It’s also helpful to distinguish between meaning “in” work, versus meaning “at” work, because for employees to experience meaning in work, they must first experience meaning at work.

Meaning in work arises from the work one does as part of their role. This is where they perceive their work as significant and worthwhile, contributing to something greater than themselves.

But meaning can also arise at work, which is where the employee perceives their job to be personally significant and worthwhile as a result of their experience of the working environment.

So, for employees to have the capacity to consider their work as meaningful or care about contributing to something greater than themselves, they must first consider their job to be personally significant and worthwhile.

The role of People Experience Teams

Employers can support employees in feeling meaning at work by ensuring the working environment is providing employees opportunities for their following needs to be met:

Physical and psychological wellbeing

Humane work environments and supportive cultures

Not feeling overburdened or overworked

Having basic resources are provided

Social connection and belonging

Being able to be oneself at work

Feeling appreciated

Establishing positive relationships with others (grant)13

Feeling acknowledged important contributions

Personally significant or meaningful work

Applying strengths at work

Identifying how one’s work can be beneficial to others

Perceived opportunities for personal or career development

Source: Arnoux-Nicolas et al., 2016; Cardador & Rupp, 2017; Duffy et al., 2016; Duffy et al., 2017; Grant, 2007; Harzer & Ruch, 2012; Montani et al., 2017.


However, for a company to achieve this is no mean feat and is something that takes more than a statement that their people are their greatest asset.  

Meeting these wellbeing, belonging and personal meaning needs, so that organisations can begin to facilitate employees feeling meaning in their work, requires a people-centric approach to designing the employee experience. 

This is where the role of People Experience teams comes into play.

People Experience vs Traditional HR

In contrast to traditional HR, People Experience teams involve employees in the process of making decisions about the policies and processes that affect them. This new approach has been inspired by the world of product or service design and treats employees as customers.  

Where Traditional HR typically follows a top-down, ‘waterfall’ process, People Experience is all about co-creation, collaboration, and innovation. As a result, People Experience teams are far better positioned to go above and beyond meeting the most basic needs of employees and begin fostering meaningful employee experiences. 

For organisations to be able to do so, they must first invest in their People Team function, and transition HR teams into People Experience teams. Making this transition––beyond just a change in naming convention––involves the following steps:

  1. A mindset shift, 
  2. Process adjustments and upskilling team members, 
  3. Building team capacity for employee experience design.

Let’s unpack each of these.

The qualities of a People Experience team

The mindset shift requires adopting a view that the function of a People Experience team is to offer more than human resource management and legal compliance. It involves valuing an experimental approach which appreciates the value of gathering feedback and information from employees to inform decisions that will influence their working lives. 

The next step is to adjust the team’s processes for determining all the policies, procedures, and frameworks to be employee-centric. The adoption of Design Thinking, which has become important outside of the realms of Design in other areas of organisations (Dorst, 2011), is a suitable and effective way of understanding and addressing employee needs. 

Design Thinking is an “analytical and creative” process (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, pg.1), or a “set of principles” (Kolko, 2015, pg. 4), whereby the customer/employee are involved in the development of solutions to problems that affect them.

Design Thinkers possess the ability to uncover and visualise problems, concepts and ideas for exploration, definition and communication (Kolko, 2015; Razzouk & Shute, 2012). As  traditional HR teams are unlikely to have had this kind of training, there is also a need to upskill staff in these roles to set them up for success.

Lastly, the structure of these teams needs to enable capacity for continuously iterating on and improving the employee experience, while accommodating the operations of traditional HR. This means ensuring that People Experience teams are structured to include separate roles for operations and employee experience design. 

Without this structure, the employees within People Experience teams will be overburdened. 

If People Experience teams lack the capacity to ensure employee wellbeing and belonging, while attempting to work on meaning-related initiatives, employees may struggle to participate in activities designed to solve the question of “how can we make the work itself more meaningful?”.

The results of research efforts in this space are likely to highlight further unmet needs that are linked to meaningful work, in terms of the safety of the environment, cultural dynamics, workload, and reward or recognition.

If you truly want to increase employee engagement, efficiency and performance levels, so your business can thrive, your organisation must invest in growing a solid People Experience team and integrate their work into the business strategy. 

The outcome will not only benefit your business but provide opportunities for employees to experience meaningful work and become more enthusiastic about answering the dreaded “what do you do?”

Got any questions on where to start or how to put these concepts into practice? Get in touch.

This post originally appeared here

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