Purposeful work and sustainability

March 22, 2018

Corporate purpose in the workplace can be the key to unlocking the full potential of an engaged workforce. Nadine Exter writes.

8 hours a day. 40 hours a week. 168 hours a month. 2,000 hours a year.

These are the average hours an employee gives to a company. A big chunk of our time on planet Earth, given away.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

And yet…

  • 51% of employees are planning on leaving their current jobs.
  • 59% would not recommend their organisation as a good place to work.
  • For lunch, 60% eat alone at their desks, working.
  • Only 13% of employees worldwide are ‘engaged’.

So why do we work?

Dan Pink, voted in 2015 as one of the world’s top 10 most influential management thinkers, challenges our preconceptions of motivation to work. His famous RSA lecture showed that, on the whole, we are not motivated by higher pay but by three key factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Purpose — the desire to do and be part of something that has meaning and is important.

Businesses with highly engaged employees see a 10% increase in customer ratings and 20% increase in sales. Consequently, if corporates have an ill-defined or non-existent corporate purpose that employees can engage with and be motivated by, they risk ending up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.

If purpose is one of the foundations of an engaged workforce, therefore, how can businesses ensure they give employees meaning?

Purposeful organisations

There are two steps to creating and embedding purpose to help provide your employees meaning in their day-to-day roles:

  • Defining and articulating an organisation’s positive place in society.
  • Connecting an employee’s objectives and outcomes to that purpose.

Purpose is, in essence, the existential question of why we exist. Consider that at the most basic level, organisations are structures we have created to coordinate and cooperate with each other. We utilise resources, physical as well as human, to drive towards a shared purpose. We give our time, energy, and physical and intellectual capacity to do that.



With that in mind, is delivering shareholder return an employee motivator in isolation? Unlikely. Will just financial rewards? According to Dan Pink, these are not sufficient. Pay employees enough to take the issue of money off the table, but after that, the influence of money wanes. Which is why many businesses create a ‘Corporate Purpose’. A shared understanding of what your group of individuals are coming together to achieve. The company’s “philosophical heartbeat that inspires employees to do good work for you. A way to express the organization’s impact on the lives of customers, clients, students, patients — whomever you’re trying to serve.”

The sustainability strategy becomes the way this purpose is enacted and lived. The ‘how’ the organisation can be a positive force in the world. If it is a good strategy, it includes the detail of how every moving part of the business can move to contribute to the Purpose, and cascaded from that a clear direction for every employee of how they can be part of that journey. To truly embed sustainability, we need to get through to the individual employee. Give them the opportunity to opt-in to the enactment of organisational purpose.

Enactment can be through mastery, autonomy, and purpose – Dan Pink’s key motivation levers. We can:

  1. Start to democratise the sustainability strategy through effective communications so that all employees have clarity on what and how purpose is enacted. This requires 5 key elements for how you develop and then communicate your sustainability strategy:
  2. Give Mastery: once the possible opportunities for employees are clear, we can then find, nurture, and create facilitating conditions for sustainability change-makers within your organisations to master their purpose. There are 5 types of change-makers you can seek out,[1] who can not only champion and influence, but can also enact purpose from within:
  3. Autonomy: we can develop a facilitating structure for cascading sustainability throughout the organisation with a Champions or Ambassadors Network. Focus on it being self-building and self-replicating, so that members have ownership and autonomy to drive change. The sustainability and HR team initiate the network, and then create the facilitating conditions and ‘run interference’ so that the network becomes somewhat autonomous and can thrive.
  4. A Culture of Purpose: finally, we can embed into the employee-base a deeper engagement to organisational purpose and how that is enacted through the sustainability strategy. This focuses on creating connections between organisational purpose and individual motivation, and is a longer-term democratisation of sustainability. You can start with a dedicated approach to employee engagement, but eventually you may need to look at cultural characteristics and how they help or hinder, need to change, or can be leveraged. This could require culture change to embed successful values and behaviours, or simply taking an ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach and finding the good and encouraging that to develop.


  1. 40. 168. 2,000.

These hours are a gift from your employees to your organisation. Let’s make it purposeful.


If you want to learn more about how you can leverage your sustainability strategy to embed and create purposeful work, contact nadine.exter@corporate-citizenship.com

Nadine Exter is an Associate Director at Corporate Citizenship.


[1] Exter, N. (2014). Employee Engagement with Sustainable Business. London: Routledge.