The Meaning of Work – Employee Experience and Retention

In today’s world, retention has as much to do with what employees are experiencing – their aspirations, expectations, and the meaning they ascribe to work and career – as it does with the needs of an organization.

Our experiences and expectations of work and career are currently undergoing great shifts. And this is creating the need for more dialogue between the experiential and the strategic when it comes to career development and retention.

I want to focus on the experiential and the interplay between our existential “wants”, our expectations, and the experiences we have in the workplace, all of which influence career engagement and retention.

The meaning of work

The meaning that work and career hold for us is always personally defined, culturally shaped, and very fluid.

The meaning we ascribe to work and career is very much dependent on:

  • Our expectations and aspirations for work and career,  
  • Our experiences of work and career,  
  • The relationship we develop with work and career,
  • Collective, cultural narratives about work and career,
  • The ever-changing job markets,
  • Opportunities and access within those changing job markets, and
  • The stage of life we are in.

At one stage of life, access to opportunities and economic stability is a priority. At another, we may be focused on skill development and mastery in a chosen professional area or field. At another, recognition and identity are strongly entwined with what we do. At another, we may find ourselves outgrowing our jobs or our roles and yearning for change and new opportunities. And at yet another stage, our focus may turn to the purpose and relevance of what we are doing day to day.

Any of the above – alone or in combination – will influence our attitudes towards careers, how we navigate our careers, our decisions to remain in careers or jobs, or the desire to change our career paths.

Existential “wants” and expectations

The meaning of work and career is also very much entwined with core existential issues or existential “wants”. A very human desire for self-expression, mastery, security, fulfillment, having a place in the world, freedom, and contribution.

A few examples of existential “wants”:

  • To experience the work we do, and the careers we have, as meaningful. 
  • To experience a sense of purpose in the work we have chosen. 
  • To engage in work that aligns with our values.
  • To feel that our work is relevant.
  • To have choices, to have agency.
  • To have opportunities to contribute.
  • To have the boundaries between our work life and the rest of our lives respected. To have our lives respected.

These existential “wants”, in turn, come into contact and interact with our expectations and our experiences in the workplace. These include:

  • Access and opportunities for decent work and liveable wages.
  • To be part of a respectful and inclusive workplace with reasonable demands and clear communication from leaders.
  • To have a voice, to be heard.
  • To receive constructive and positive feedback.
  • To be supported and mentored.
  • To have opportunities to collaborate with and learn from others.
  • To be assigned work roles that recognize our skills, our strengths, and our value.
  • To have roles that are flexible with opportunities for growth and development.

How engaged we are, how motivated, and how committed we are to remain in a job or with an organization is very much influenced by the reciprocal interplay of existential “wants”, expectations, and experiences we have in the workplace.

That interplay shapes the relationship we develop with work and career over our lifetimes. It will influence how we design and navigate our career paths, how we respond and adapt to changes in the workforce, and how long we will remain in a particular job or with an organization.