Feb. 24, 2015 7:39 p.m. ET
Travelzoo Inc. ’s 438 employees spend their days trying to find customers a good deal on flight and hotel packages. To hear managers describe their work in meetings, however, booking a customer on a cheap trip to the Caribbean can serve a higher purpose: helping someone get over the death of a loved one or meet a future spouse.
“If we all traveled, there would be significantly more peace on Earth,” Travelzoo Chief Executive Chris Loughlin said he has told employees.
Can a job just be a job? Not anymore.
Faced with a cadre of young workers who say they want to make a difference in addition to a paycheck, employers are trying to inject meaning into the daily grind, connecting profit-driven endeavors to grand consequences for mankind.
In part, professionals are demanding more meaning from their careers because work simply takes up more of life than before, thanks to longer hours, competitive pressures and technological tethers of the modern job. Meanwhile, traditional sources of meaning and purpose, such as religion, have receded in many corners of the country.
Companies have long cited lofty mission statements as proof they have concerns beyond the bottom line, and in the past decade tech firms like Google Inc. attracted some of the economy’s brightest workers by inviting recruits to come and change the world by writing lines of code or managing projects.
Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words “mission,” “higher purpose,” “change the world” or “changing the world” were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.
A Kohl’s Corp. executive said at an investor conference last year that if the retailer’s associates “can truly relate their work to some higher purpose,” they will sell more sweaters and handbags.
And at a Harley-Davidson Motor Co. investor event in 2013, the company’s marketing chief said “there is a higher purpose to the Harley-Davidson brand that is more than motorcycles.”
Meaning and purpose is a “fallow asset” that firms can tap to boost staff loyalty and engagement, said Bruce Pfau, who oversees consulting giant KPMG’s human-resources department in the U.S.
That firm is trying to imbue accounting with world-changing sweep, launching a campaign to boost employee retention and outside recruiting that highlights the broader purpose of number-crunching for major corporations.
The initiative kicked off with a video featuring company leaders that boasts of the firm’s hand in the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the launch of NASA’s first space station and the release of Iranian hostages in 1981.
“We can see ourselves as bricklayers or cathedral builders,” said Global Chairman John Veihmeyer in the video. The company held a contest for U.S. employees to share stories and design digital posters touting the bigger impact of their jobs, and it netted 42,000 submissions.
In an interview, Mr. Veihmeyer said it can be tougher to convince an auditor of his or her higher purpose—“helping to sustain confidence in the capital markets”—compared with, say, the meaning a doctor feels when caring for patients.
Siobhan Kiernan, a KPMG manager, acknowledged that she’s not a brain surgeon or a scientist. But she is helping some of those people do their taxes.
“I can take the worry of doing their tax returns off their mind,” she said, explaining a poster she made for the contest that reads “I support advancements in medicine.”
Plenty of employees are fine with being a cog rather than a cathedral builder. About one-third of individuals feel their work is a calling, according to Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
Those who can connect their work to a higher purpose—whether they are a janitor or a banker—tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, put in longer hours and rack up fewer absences, according to Ms. Wrzesniewski’s research.
But for the two-thirds who view their job as a paycheck or a necessary rung on the corporate ladder, campaigns around meaning can highlight the fact that those workers don’t derive deep meaning from work, Ms. Wrzesniewski said.
“It’s trying to put lipstick on the pig,” she added.
One KPMG tax employee based in Philadelphia, speaking anonymously to avoid offending his bosses, described the video as “over the top,” and said it got him thinking about the lack of meaning in his day job. The campaign and poster contest prompted questions like, “If I want to really make a change, why would I sit here?” he said, adding that it reinforced his hunch that he would have to leave the company to really do good in the world.
An October survey by the company found that employees whose managers talked about KPMG’s impact on society were 42.4% more likely to describe the firm as a great place to work. Of those with managers who talked up meaning, 68% indicated they rarely think about looking for a new job outside KPMG; that share fell to 38% for employees whose managers didn’t discuss meaning.
Juniper Networks Inc. has spent much of the past year cutting costs, laying off workers and fending off activist shareholders. Two days after announcing a fourth-quarter loss, managers at the technology company gathered hundreds of employees in a massive tent it calls the “aspiration dome.”
“Certainly, we build awesome routers and switches,” CEO Rami Rahim said at the Jan. 29 meeting, according to transcript excerpts provided by the company. “But what we are doing really is enabling researchers to find cures for deadly diseases. We are enabling scientists to bring clean tech energies that make this planet a better place. We are bringing education to Third World countries.”
The company has asked 500 of its most connected employees—workers identified by peers as being trusted helpers and confidantes—to meet with groups of 20 to 25 colleagues about the company’s mission. Afterward, the “connectors” share tidbits of the conversations on Juniper’s internal social network, said Chris Ernst, a company executive.
“When you have 9,000 people who are committed to something much bigger than themselves, they’re going to get through lots of ups and downs,” Mr. Ernst said.
A shared sense of purpose motivates and unites the employees scattered at Travelzoo’s offices around the world, according to Mr. Loughlin, who said its deals have brought joy to an ill customer and preserved hospitality industry jobs during the economic crash. Employees recently produced a video in which workers’ testimonials about being part of something greater than themselves are set over swells of electronic music.
Still, Mr. Loughlin said a top employee recently told him that she doesn’t come to work to have fun.
“For her, it’s a job,” he said. “Not everyone wants to change the world.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com