Employers should integrate serving others into work so people are not just collecting paychecks—they’re doing work that has meaning
Work and Learning

Employers should integrate serving others into work so people are not just collecting paychecks—they’re doing work that has meaning

Female Engineer, stock photo.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

As some states begin sending out $300 supplemental unemployment checks to make up for the loss of extra federal benefit payments that ended in July, several—including New York and Pennsylvania—are boosting investments in new strategies for integrating work and learning.

These strategies are helping workers re-establish the economic lifelines severed by a pandemic while also building long-term skills for a lifetime of constantly changing work.

While this is welcome and overdue, it’s also a moment to reflect on what workers want from work, and how their employers can help make that happen while, in turn, strengthening their organizations.

People desire work that helps them economically but also offers social mobility, personal satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and meaning. Tech innovator and investor Roy Bahat summed it up when he said people work for financial security—and for dignity: “You’re part of something greater than yourself, and it connects to some broader whole.”

Work is changing in unprecedented ways as technology and artificial intelligence take over repetitive tasks performed by humans. The key is to be prepared for this new era of human work—the work only we can do in the age of smart machines—by fully acknowledging that we all want more from our work.

All of us will need to learn, earn, and serve others during the course of our lifetimes. But by integrating serving others with work, we can be part of a virtuous cycle that expands human potential and allows each of us to make a difference.

We’ll need to prepare for work of the future by developing capacities such as compassion, critical thinking, ethics, and interpersonal communication—in college, at work, and in our daily lives. This means the nation needs new approaches to formal and informal learning after high school that intentionally develop our human capacities while expanding opportunities to be of service so that we can gain greater meaning and satisfaction from life.

One way to go about this would be to retool corporate training to better capture what human workers want. Survey research from Gallup shows that fewer than one-third of workers feel engaged with their work. Nonetheless, most workers say that having real meaning in their work is essential to happiness and life satisfaction. “Enjoying their day-to-day work, having stable and predictable pay, and having a sense of purpose each rate more highly than level of pay among U.S. workers’ criteria for job quality—even among those in the bottom 20 percent of incomes,” according to the Gallup report.

It’s clear that, as a society, we should be integrating service into learning and earning at all levels, from our home communities to our formal work settings. Some of this can be seen in what I like to call “service-integrated work” efforts such as internships, apprenticeships, or in service learning such as national service.

Another way to think about earning, learning, and serving others is to place much greater emphasis on integrating these activities within the workplace. We must go beyond existing models—such as the common perk of paid volunteer time off—to the development of individual service-integrated work plans, building on corporate strategies to invest in employee learning plans.

For example, take a marketing team in the diabetes division of a pharmaceutical company. To truly understand the needs of doctors and patients and the benefits of various drug products, this team could work for a month or two in a healthcare facility that treats diabetes patients. In doing so, the team would enhance its empathy and compassion by caring for people in need.

Employers should work with states and local governments that will be allocating their enhanced federal stimulus funds to build opportunities for serving others into work—and not as add-ons to employees’ “regular jobs.” It should be viewed as central to their firms’ success.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” which will be published Oct. 6.

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