What We Really Want From Work

07/16/2012 10:17 am ET | Updated Sep 15, 2012

You walk into the office at 8:59, turn on your computer, and check your personal beliefs and values at the door. You may volunteer on the weekend and recycle at home, but in the office, you care just about money, sales, and quarterly results. Right?


At Net Impact, we've just released a national study, funded by the MacArthur
Foundation and conducted by Rutgers University called Net Impact's Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012. The study results are a clear rebuttal of this notion that workers are spiritless drones willing to work solely for a company's bottom line.

In fact, our research shows that today's workers are just the opposite. The report finds that employees who have an opportunity to make a social and environmental impact on the job are twice as likely to say they are satisfied with their jobs as others. Employees who volunteer with their co-workers, participate on a green team, and work on socially responsible products and services all report higher satisfaction levels than those who aren't given such opportunities. And we believe that these more satisfied and engaged employees are the ones producing better results.

What's more, college students today are keen to integrate their values into their careers. Our research shows that 65 percent of graduating students expect to make a social or environmental difference through their work, and 58 percent of students would take a 15 percent pay cut to work for an organization that shares their values.

So that should make it easy, right? We can all commit to bringing our values to work, and the workplace will be a more humane, responsible, and sustainable place.

Wrong again.

The problem isn't that people, and bosses in particular, are inherently bad or evil. (OK, maybe some are, but they are the exception). The issue is that we're still evolving from a cultural view of work as imposed by an "other" instead of work as something connected to the self. Think about recent cultural portrayals of work like Dilbert, Office Space, and even Mad Men. These all portray an autocratic hierarchy aspiring to riches by taking advantage of their hard working employees -- a concept rooting back to the feudal system!

Such portrayals strike a chord with us because of our emerging feeling that work should be more less amount money and more aligned with our innermost selves. Recent happiness research backs up this notion; turns out we only need about $75,000 a year to reach our happiness plateau. So if money isn't all it's cracked up to be, perhaps more of us should question why we separate our passions from our 40-hour work week. What if our jobs were better aligned with our values and sense of purpose? Our data shows we'd all be more satisfied, and our workplaces would be more compassionate, sustainable, and productive.

A new breed of business gurus argues effectively for work with purpose, based on empirical research and a wide array of case studies. Daniel Pink has made the case that money isn't the best motivator -- that people are motivated more by autonomy, developing their skills, and a sense of higher purpose. Chip Conley uses Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid for a model of how we connect to the "higher needs" of employees, resulting in greater productivity and success. Carol Cone speaks frequently on the power of purpose to radically engage employees.

One thing is certain: the workplace of the future will be fundamentally different than the workplace of past or present. Soon enough, people will connect their jobs to their personal values and a broader purpose, whether working in a nonprofit or a Fortune 500. Gone will be the weekend environmentalists -- instead full-time environmentalists and social justice advocates will find ways to make a mark as part of their day jobs. And with more people using their jobs to address global challenges like climate, poverty, and health, we may actually help solve them. That's something to work towards.