Creating meaning at work: Going beyond free fruit and table tennis

24th March by Kath Howard

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Creating meaning at work

I see organisations continuing to search for new and novel ways to motivate their people, and it can be nothing over than a good thing that they’re putting energy behind this. However, as I see some of these organisations throwing in free breakfasts, cosy sofas and table tennis tables under the auspices of ‘employee engagement’, I think it’s useful to remember that such interventions are merely the sprinkles on any cupcake of employee happiness.

It’s been somewhat fashionable in recent years for organisations to provide shopping discounts, free food and activities. This sits particularly well with creative industries where such activities may provide a creative space for free thinking and moments of creative genius. I can see why this is helpful, but let’s not pretend it helps to keep those people when another job offer comes beckoning. Not unless you’re working to having other parts of the motivational puzzle in place. In 2016, Schwartz1 conducted survey research to explore what motivates people at work. He asked line managers and employees about what motivates people at work, and found their perspectives differed widely. Whilst line managers described the importance of pay, promotion and job security to motivation at work, employees focused more on the importance of personal growth, influencing how work is done and the care shown by the organisation.

Pay and promotion alone are not enough to motivate your people. 

This will not be breaking news for you. 

So, what might motivate people more than free fruit and table tennis tables?

1. Appreciation for their contribution
Disappointingly obvious isn’t it? Our greatest innovation so far to this issue has been to introduce technology that can pop an automatic thank you to people on email. Sometimes we are so eager to respond that we forget that the process is just as important as the outcome. Not all offers of appreciation are created equal, and a personal thank you can be far more powerful than one generated by a system. Just say thank you.

2. Having some control and influence over their work
This is another disappointingly obvious one but continues to be missing in many work environments. It isn’t always possible to do your work exactly as you might like – there are processes, rules and otherwise to follow – yet this is about giving people control and input. ‘Autonomy’ has long been one of the core components of human motivation theories.

3. Opportunities to develop
Being given the opportunity to develop our skills offers us greater career potential and shows an appreciation for what we can contribute in the future. So many people leave organisations because of limited career opportunities, and whilst sometimes people need to be supported to fly elsewhere, we can often keep people motivate longer if we have meaningful career discussions.

4. Being shown care and loyalty
It is easy to say we care about our people because we wrote about it in a policy once, or when pushed will let them take time out of work to recover from a life event. However, what really engages people is when their line manager and colleagues support them when things go wrong, and when they show a personal response to personal needs. There is zero point to a big flashy engagement roadshow or to those baskets of free fruit if what people experience in their day-to-day work is a lack of care, control and appreciation. Relationships are personal, and that is what we’re building here – meaningful working relationships.

So, what can you do to look more closely at how to motivate the unique people within your organisation?

The ideas that follow are intended to support you to delve into what motivates your own people. This isn’t the realm of the HR person alone; gathering and understanding the information yourself can build trust with your people and be a big win.

Three ideas to guide your thinking as leaders…

1. Work with purpose: Consider why it matters and what difference you want to make
* What is your purpose? Is this what you should be prioritising as a business?
* You’re defining your purpose at this stage because people will spot lack of clarity a mile off, and it helps to be able to share your intent honestly and open with them. If the honest answer is that no one other than you cares, but you’re delving into this to build that person case, that’s absolutely fine too (or it is for the purpose of this task). 

2. Get personal: Match your approach to the needs of your people
* Spend time speaking with people to understand what motivates differing groups of people within your organisation. Talk to those you wouldn’t usually connect with at this stage.
* Listen and apply professional curiosity. Do you observe and hear differing needs and motivations across groups, and how do you know this?
* Consider other engagement data available to you to e.g. climate surveys, team feedback, leavers interviews and ad hoc feedback.
* Show what you’ve found to another trusted person and ask them what they see. You’re trying to explore the less obvious points – what does someone see from the ‘outside in’?

3. Keep it simple: Care, Control & Appreciation
* You’ve gathered information and translated it into possibilities. Remember as you start to design interventions that the ‘low hanging fruit’ can be ever enticing but also ever ineffective.
* Really think about the change you can create that has the potential to stick. And remember that whilst some activities won’t make the headlines, leading with care, control and influence, and appreciating your people are likely to be the approaches that achieve this for you.
* Stay curious, ask questions and say thank you – perhaps it really is as simple as that.
Concluding points: The importance of leading with heart

I’m not sure this article will have elicited any lightbulb moments, but if nothing else, I hope it’s been a useful reminder of the importance of going back to basics and treating people like people. Beyond the language we use of ‘headcount’, ‘human capital’ and ‘resources’ are real people with real needs and experiences. The word ‘compassion’ doesn’t always resonate with everyone when we’re talking about managing people or developing high-performing teams, so I’ve purposefully kept it until the end of the article, lest it should encourage an early ‘delete’. However, compassion is at they very heart of any personalised, tailored approach to motivating your team, your colleagues or yourself. When we start leading with heart, no matter what our role or job function, we’ll create workplaces where we no longer need free fruit or table tennis to motivate our people*.


A massive thank you to Kath Howard and the team at Practical Inspiration Publishing for allowing us to share this article. You can read more about how to put the human back into HR and how to shift your organisation culture in Kath’s new book, ‘People Not Paperclips: Putting the human back into Human Resources’. It is available in bookshops and online.

*Please know that I love fruit and table tennis. I would be delighted to work in an organisation that offered both. Just give me the care, control and appreciation to please.

Sources: 1 Schwartz, T. (2016). Th e Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Simon & Schuster: UK.