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Return to Purpose: Experts on why the transition back to offices will be 'when purpose comes of age'

Insights from the Purpose Collaborative

Almost daily, we see a new op-ed, data point, or report on the transition back to in-person, in-office work. We are learning that employees will quit before they return to a 5-day-a-week work schedule, take a pay cut in exchange for opportunities to work virtually, and wish they had more time off to volunteer. In sifting through these insights and talking with colleagues and industry leaders, we were reminded again and again of the pivotal role purpose must play in this transition. To go deeper, we asked the Purpose Collaborative, the world’s largest collective of purpose-driven firms, the question: What will the role of purpose play, with employees, in a post-COVID world in the new ways of working? Returning to the office, WFH, and a hybrid?

Aaron Hurst, Imperative: “We know from research that the more chaotic the world is, the more we look for something foundational to help us keep our footing and ground us. We look for purpose. With the return to work, chaos will accelerate and more and more employees will be looking for clarity of personal purpose to ground them so they can navigate and not lose themselves.”

Cory Grabow, Bruxton: “For us, purpose is an inward obsession that if done right and is consistent then the team will outwardly portray it to our community, partners and the world. Where you get the work done shouldn't matter as long as that internal company alignment is on point.”

Danielle Finck, Elle Communications: “While each person's experience was unique, the COVID pandemic had significant psychological and social impacts on nearly everyone. We have all come out on the other side with an evolved view of the world and our interconnectedness. And as we embark on the future of work with a much more hybrid approach to physical workplaces, I believe that purpose will be the core tenet of company culture, making it as vital as the salary and benefits packages companies offer for finding and retaining top talent."

Elliot Kotek, The Nation of Artists: “Given that some people are quitting rather than giving up their WFH status, purpose will be a huge driver in motivating employees to put aside their creature comforts and lack of a commute in order to lean toward collective goals that are oriented toward team, company, and/or societal lenses.”

Harold Hamana, Knight & Pawn: “We have seen that purpose is finally becoming front and center at the individual level, since the pandemic seems to have crystallized many trends we were experiencing to different degrees before coming to a screeching halt last year. Beyond the specifics of coming back to a physical office, continuing to WFH or the mixed models we are seeing across the board, individual employees, not corporations as a whole, are driving change. People are relocating to other cities, suburbs and countries to increase their quality of life and be able to focus on ideas, principles and activities that are closer to their values and worldview. This is a seismic change stemming from reflection, isolation, refocusing on core values and taking stock on their life and impact on their families, society and environment. In short, in a post-COVID world, purpose has completed its trajectory from an abstract concept, to trend, to corporate value, to an individual need for balance and meaning, which is expressed through the value we add through our work and contribution to the social contract. As it has been the case for technology companies in the past, which do not focus on building code and algorithms but in changing the world for the better through specific solutions which they aim to scale and connect with consumers, purpose has become the common thread that connects Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z in our drive to make work meaningful, relevant and transcendent.”

Henry Playfoot, The Pitch Doctor: “For many people, the flexible working genie is now out of the bottle. And as we reevaluate our individual and collective priorities in the context of a global pandemic, a sense of meaning in work is now more important than ever. Our post-COVID world might be the moment when purpose comes of age.”

Jenna Kuchinsky, Yulu Public Relations: “Our transition to a post-COVID world will, in many ways, follow the same guiding principles as our transition to remote working at the start of the pandemic: empowering our team to create a working environment that is sustainable for each individual, and is accommodating to various life circumstances – be it allowing flexibility to care for vulnerable loved ones at home, or supporting those feeling isolated and craving connection. We will continue to prioritize our team's morale, wellbeing, and professional development. We recognize that supporting our team must come first in order to continue successfully living our mission and purpose to amplify our clients' impact.”

Laurence Evans, Reputation Leaders: “Workers are pragmatic and their first concerns around return to an office workplace are around health, safety, hygiene and protection. Is the employer willing to be policeman on vaccinations/infections as well as manager? The second concerns are around flexible working and employers listening to employees. There have been several announcements from CEOs in banking and tech about their employees returning to the office. Employees will vote with their feet. Many have adapted and like WFH at least 1-3 days a week, are reconsidering the commute and are willing to relocate. Inflexible or tone deaf management may face a skilled talent exodus at a time of skills shortages.”

Marc Pollick, The Giving Back Fund: “As we begin to return to some semblance of pre-COVID normal, we are all now profoundly aware of the fragility of human life and the power of connectivity. Without Zoom, etc. where would this world be right now? And yet, even with Zoom, we have all dearly missed the warmth and comfort of walking down the hall and sitting with a colleague and sharing stories and our lives with them. COVID has only brought home, at a great human cost, how interconnected the world is and that human wellbeing is everyone's problem in a global society that really has no boundaries. How many of us lived a lifetime without really focusing on the meaning of 'Front Line Workers'?! We will never again lack that sensibility or awareness. To the extent that purpose is concerned with an eye towards compassion and caring and that triple bottom line, never before has purpose been more urgent or more relevant. We are all in this together and COVID has hammered that home in ways that could only have been unimaginable prior to March of 2020!”

Michael Bellavia, HelpGood: “We've just survived the biggest existential threat to humans in a generation (hopefully it is the biggest). Nobody is returning to work the same person they were pre-pandemic. Now more than ever your organizational purpose needs to be centered internally. You won't be able to advance any action in the world if you aren't taking care of your team and staff first. ‘Work from home’ really has taught us that organizational success is predicated on how a workplace values your home life. Organizations need to actively cultivate and support the resilience, mental health and safety of the members of its own 'house' to truly make an impact through their work.”

Michelyn Dion, R&G Strategic: “A purpose is just an empty promise if it doesn't have the support of your organization's workers to follow through on it. Ensuring employee wellbeing and quality of life goes hand in hand with being a purpose-driven company, and COVID revealed the need to re-evaluate what office life looks like when considering employee wellbeing. A flexible working model will empower your employees, foster a productive environment, and project out to your stakeholders that you walk the talk on social purpose."

Neill Duffy, 17 Sport: "As we emerge out of the pandemic and the balance of power shifts from employers to employees, an organization's authentic commitment to leveraging its platform to solve real world problems in a purposeful way will become an important reason why employees will chose to work with one company over another."

Phillip Haid, Public Inc.: “Purpose will and should drive everything. We are entering a new phase where putting your people first is a must. So knowing what drives the culture and how you can best support your people with inclusive policies, mental health, leadership development and community engagement will be key. Purpose helps clarify and navigate the experience.”

Shayna Samuels, Ripple Strategies: “COVID shed light on what’s really important in life, such as family, creativity, and slowing down. Returning to work, people want to feel a sense of purpose not only around these personal aspects of life, but with what they’re contributing to the world, now more than ever. The virus was also a reminder that we can’t keep doing business as usual if we want the planet to survive. Purpose is no longer optional.”


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