Businesses seem to operate as if money is what most motivates their employees. Well, that isn’t really the case. The meaning of the work is more important to employees. It makes them happier, more productive and willing to work more. If the work isn’t perceived as meaningful, people will often choose to do something different.
I have experienced this first hand. I worked for a large financial client in New York once that had a large project that was important for their sales team. The final version of the software that they wanted installed and configured wasn’t finished yet. While they waited for that, they decided that they wanted to take the weekly builds of the software and build out what they could. Every week, they deleted the development repository, installed the new version and rebuilt everything again. It was much like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. This went on for a couple months. Then they wanted everyone to work weekends, so that we could get a little farther every week. Can you guess where this was going? Three quarters of our team quit the company, including one Indian developer on an H-1B Visa who had to return home. It wasn’t worth it for even him to stay in that position.
This demonstrates how important it is for a job to have meaning. That doesn’t mean that that every job has to change the world, but it has to have some meaning to someone, somewhere. Otherwise, it saps the motivation from people. For a good talk on this phenomena, check out this TEDx talk by Dan Ariely. I originally found out about it over on Lifehacker.