Over Labor Day weekend, I had some time to reflect on the contributions of the American labor movement, and on the value of work itself.

Many of us do not have to look far to see the benefits we have earned. I think about my grandmother’s parents, who came to the United States from Eastern Europe and worked as sharecroppers, and my grandfather who worked in auto manufacturing plants in the 1930s when many of today’s work benefits were won. We have their courage to thank for the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, paid vacation and paid medical benefits. These benefits are a given of our work life today.

The labor movement also allowed many members of the WWII generation to join the middle class with high-paid jobs. Their children, the baby boomers of my generation, have continued to move up the economic ladder into professional white-collar roles as knowledge workers. Rather than sowing the seeds of its own destruction with high-wage jobs, it’s reasonable to think of our blue-collar forbears as having paved the way to a better work life for future generations.

The meaning and value of work is changing again.  Moving beyond knowledge work alone, the current generation of workers is being asked to produce an even higher level of value.  Today’s workers and firms are increasingly being asked to deliver products, solutions and experiences that create economic value by infusing a higher sense of meaning and connectivity into their work product.

The importance of meaning and finding a higher purpose in work is described by Dave and Wendy Ulrich in their 2010 opus, The Why of Work. “Humans are meaning making machines who find inherent value in making sense out of life,” says Ulrich.   Having a meaning that is personal and tied to a higher purpose reinforces an individual’s passion for one’s work. Structured properly and with the right leadership, work has potential to be more than just the drudgery of the sharecropper or the assembly line. Work can and should be a way to create meaning for oneself and for others.

In addition to creating meaning, today’s workers and firms are asked to create connections.  Think about the digital superpowers: Google, Facebook, Starbucks, Amazon. These companies are not just selling information, coffee and online retail goods.  They are selling experiences that bring people together in unique settings. They are facilitating connections between people and serving as “hub firms” that, per a current Harvard Business Review article, are re-architecting industries based on networks, in the process enabling unique experiences across sectors.

The importance of meaning and connections can be understood by the work of Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria from Harvard Business School. Their 2003 work Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices describes how people’s economic decisions are influenced in part by two drives that have been previously little appreciated: 1) the drive to create, or to contribute to a cause greater than oneself, and 2) the drive to bond, to make connections with other people. These two drives complement our more acquisitive drives to maximize and to defend our rational self-interest.

The implications for work are profound. No longer is it enough to simply maximize value through higher productivity. Engaging employees or sales channel organizations requires more than short-term incentives. Every organization should be thinking about how to move beyond transactions with their customers and selling channels to creating deeper relationships that add value beyond a series of transactions. Engagement, loyalty, repeat purchase and advocacy will be created by meaningful work that inspires the whole person with a higher purpose and the opportunity to make new connections.

Meaningful work and success in business increasingly relies on being able to tap into the passion and authenticity of sellers and customers, and being able to make each group feel valued and empowered. The emotional component of an economic relationship is key to inspiring passion, authenticity, value and empowerment. Brands can foster these emotional components through their ability to serve a higher purpose and build new connections, both utilitarian and personal.

Given the new imperatives of work, motivating and engaging sellers, employees and customers becomes a new game altogether.  Hence, the importance of discovery and design to engage these audiences at higher levels to become meaning makers and connecting points. And to reinforce the dignity and pride in work as not just a means to survival, but as a source of meaning.

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