Meaningful work, as a concept, has been discussed in academic and people & culture circles for some time, but it really only burst into the collective consciousness of employees – and onto the radar of employers – over the past two years.

Retail workers comprise 11 percent of the Australian workforce, but exist in an industry that is undergoing some fundamental changes in line with shifting consumer preferences and digitisation.

Still, it is possible to create welcoming workplaces that encourage talented staff to stay.

According to Forbes ‘Great Place To Work’ research, retail workers are 3-5 times more likely to stay when they feel their work has purpose. That is illustrated in the difference between ‘best’ and ‘average’ retail workplaces: “Only 38% of employees at an average retail company say their work has meaning. For companies that made the list of Best Workplaces in Retail for 2022, 79% of employees on average said their work was meaningful.”

Employers need to provide opportunities for people to perform work that has meaning if they are to attract and retain the best talent. By the same token, employees want to be given meaningful work that ignites their passion, harnesses their knowledge and/or challenges them to strive to be better. But the two parties are often not in alignment on this issue.

One way to determine this is to consider your own situation. If you were to step back and look objectively at your own role today, what percentage would you describe as ‘meaningful’, and what percentage might you categorise as ‘mundane’?

More than likely, not everything you do keeps your internal fire burning brightly and consistently. Whether it’s weekly or monthly reporting, or administrative tasks like record-keeping or time sheets, there may be things that cause you to question whether or not your work or overall contribution is meaningful.

Underlining the disparity, your employer may consider what you do to be ‘meaningful’, insofar as it actively and positively contributes to the company’s financial position. Whether or not that meets your own standard for, or definition of, meaningful work is another question entirely, but it’s one that employers are trying to understand and address.

Being purposeful

Employers are becoming much more cognisant of these issues. In a tight recruitment market, they in some ways have no choice. Employers know they must do everything within their power to keep existing employees happy and productive.

More employers than ever are running regular employee sentiment surveys to gauge wellbeing and mindset. While anonymised, the aggregate views offer considerable insight and evidence of whether employers are getting it right when it comes to meaningful work.

These results are pushing leaders – and the organisations they work for – to develop new skills and specific initiatives to foster a meaningful work environment for individuals and teams.

As PwC notes, this may not come naturally. “It’s rarely second nature for leaders to focus on making jobs fulfilling,” PwC says. “Doing so requires deep empathy on the part of managers and the ability to translate the company’s overall purpose into specific actions and behaviours, so that employees can see how their work contributes to that purpose. It also requires organisations to identify and eliminate gaps between their words and deeds.”

But PwC goes on to say that: “Managers can create the right work environment and leadership model, and they can remove the most burdensome aspects of employees’ lives – excessive bureaucracy, points of friction, administrative tasks that sap the joy from work.”

These are important dots that need to be joined. Managers themselves can only do so much by themselves; at some point, they must find ways to relieve employees of boring tasks, so those employees can focus on the things that excite them most.

Automation’s time to shine

The automation of repetitive, boring work is an increasingly valuable action that can cleanse roles of the mundane so that only meaningful aspects remain.

Recent research by IDC shows retail is one of the leading sectors in Asia Pacific in embracing automation for this purpose.

Automation in a retail context is really about creating augmented experiences for customers, and in doing so, ease pressure on retail staff. As one study notes, “consumers now see digital tools as a necessary part of the shopping experience. They expect stores to be digitally-enabled and for brands and retailers to support hybrid shopping journeys, which blend physical and digital channels.”

How much of the retail experience can be digitally augmented, such as with the use of automation technology, will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, but the end result is likely to be significant time savings for retail staff.

This time can then be reinvested into the things that really make retail tick like quality interactions with customers, additional training or better work-life balance. The options are endless, but all of these things can increase job satisfaction, employee engagement and loyalty.

Rajith Haththotuwegama is manager of data analytics & automation at Tecala.