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COVID-19 was a crisis none of us could have predicted. It has unequivocally changed the way we live, work, think and prioritise.

For many of us, it has been a time to reflect on and re-consider our purpose in the world – what is important to us? What do we want to spend our time investing in? In a recent study of US based employees, McKinsey & Co found that two thirds of those surveyed have reflected on their purpose in life due to COVID-19, and nearly half of them were reconsidering the kind of work they wanted to do.

We’ve been in crisis mode, but now is the time to get back to the basics of why we do the work we do and what we are aiming to achieve – whilst still navigating a global pandemic and beyond. The same applies to business.

Organisations have had to re-focus on their purpose, firstly to adapt and survive in a changed business world, and then to re-engage their people as they seek to recover and thrive in the new future of work. And this is much more than a management exercise. It’s about creating new, long-term business sustainability, as purpose becomes a more critical element of your employee and customer value propositions.

Re-focus on your organisation’s purpose
As Julie Sweet from Accenture recently said, it is time to ‘quickly move to normalising’. As the light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic comes gradually closer, and as the year anniversary of the first UK lockdown has long since passed, organisations must now re-focus where focus might have been lost, to concentrate once again on their core purpose – and re-align employees around this too.

Simon Sinek describes an organisational purpose as a ‘just cause’ or a ‘why’ and explains how even if organisations can articulate what they do and how they do it, they need to know why they do it, in order to have longevity and continue to inspire both those inside the organisation and those outside of it.

Over the last year, leaders have had to put their people first in a way that they haven’t necessarily had to before. It has been crucial to have displayed vulnerability, to have communicated clearly and often, and to have kept in touch with how employees have felt and experienced both work and home life. It has also been important to have shown discretion around flexibility and in support offered to those with differing personal circumstances.

While this more human side of leadership and the dynamic between leaders and employees has been welcomed, needed and should continue, it is also time for leaders to take back the reigns with some of the decisions to follow – both in how the ‘new normal’ world of work looks, decisions around returning to the office, and in what the organisation’s strategic priorities need to be.

A strategy that is right for the organisation and that is fit-for-purpose is vital, but it is the organisation’s purpose, the reason it exists and the single thing it aims to achieve, that must come first. For organisations to really thrive rather than just survive, this purpose needs to be clear, it needs to inspire, and critically, it needs employees to be on board.

Re-engage your people with your purpose

During the pandemic, London Fire Brigade honed in on engaging their people around their core purpose: “Trusted to serve and protect London”. LFB pivoted their focus, using their crews to deliver over 10 million pieces of PPE equipment to frontline health workers, while also continuing to prevent and tackle fires across the city – all while working under immensely difficult pandemic conditions.

It is human nature to want to live for something greater than ourselves and to be a part of something bigger. McKinsey & Co found that 89% of respondents surveyed said they wanted purpose in their lives and 70% felt their sense of purpose was largely defined by their work[3].  Purpose is important, and organisations will have a problem if their people aren’t getting their own sense of purpose met at work.

As leaders, there are 4 things you can do, to re-engage your people with your organisation’s purpose:

Make it simple
Ideally the reason your organisation exists – what it sets out to achieve – should be communicated simply and summed up in a sentence. It’s important that the purpose is clear, but also that people remember it – ideally both employees and customers.

Be authentic
Hopefully you are a part of your organisation because you believe in its reason for being. Make sure this comes across when communicating the purpose to your employees because not doing so could have detrimental effects, if they don’t believe you mean what you say. In addition to this, identify any ways that the purpose could be better embedded within the organisation. Is it being lived? Are decisions made as a result of it? Or is it just a statement?

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HBO Max has the clear purpose of “Delivering the world’s best stories and most engaging content from talented storytellers and journalists to audiences around the globe.”

During the pandemic, and during the Black Lives Matter campaign, HBO Max continued to deliver on their purpose, adjusting their ways of working to protect their employees and communities while seeking alternative and innovative ways to share content and engage audiences.

Aim to inspire
As the old adage goes ‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel’. The goal is to have a purpose that motivates and inspires. Is it communicated in a way that makes employees proud to do the work they do? In their 2016 study of Purpose in the Workplace, PWC found that employees preferred to hear about the impact that their organisation was having through client and customer stories, employee stories and leadership messages.  As a leader therefore, you have an important part to play in communicating the ‘why’, but are there any employee or customer stories that can help bring the purpose to life?

Delivery Hero has a mission to deliver an amazing experience to its customers – and the same applies to its employees too. Its goal has always been to build an inclusive company in which its employees ‘can truly be themselves’. Its focus on fostering ‘a culture that thrives on strong values and purpose’ has earned it Delivery Hero a Best Places to Work accolade – and its success is reflected in continued business growth.

Join the dots
Employees may understand and be inspired by the purpose, but they need to recognise how their work contributes to it too. Ensure that all employees understand how they fit with the organisation’s purpose and how their contributions impact its success. Additionally, make time for employees to reflect on their own sense of purpose. McKinsey & Co found that employees who were given this opportunity were 3 times more likely to feel that their work fulfils their purpose than those who weren’t. They also found that when employees’ own sense of purpose aligns with organisational purpose, it makes for employees who are more engaged and more loyal to the organisation as a result.

Aligning organisational and individual purpose
According to PwC’s strategy consulting business, Strategy&[6], purpose-driven organisations are more successful: 90% deliver growth and profits at or above industry average. More than this, though, being purposeful is a strategy for long-term success: it allows you to attract the right talent, it inspires your people to deliver, and it demonstrates your commitment to customers.

What’s more, tying your organisational purpose to the individual purpose of your employees – why do they come to work every day? Why do they want to deliver what you want to achieve? – is much more likely to deliver sustainable business success during times of crisis and challenge.

So, if you’ve not already done so, now is the time to put purpose at the top of your agenda. Without it, navigating beyond the pandemic will be a much tougher challenge.

ENGAGE is a consultancy that creates highly engaged and effectively led organisations.  We know that businesses succeed when leaders understand how to engage employees with their vision, strategy and values. Businesses perform when leaders and employees are fully engaged with the role they play in delivering these.

As a result, we gather and integrate data from every level of the organisation and across every aspect of the employee experience. From this, we deliver research-led programmes for leaders and leadership teams, managers and employees, using bespoke insight tools to inform decision-making and drive high impact

[1] Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave, McKinsey and Company article, April 2021

[2] Start with why, Simon Sinek, 2009

[3] Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave, McKinsey and Company article, April 2021

[4] Putting Purpose to Work: A study of purpose in the workplace, PWC, June 2016

[5] Purpose, not platitudes: A personal challenge for top executives, McKinsey and Company article, December 2020

[6] ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE:  Why Are We Here, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 2019

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