How to retain great employees? Make sure they know their purpose

When employees know that their work matters, job satisfaction and productivity soar. Here’s how one company makes the connection

Fish moving as a school

(Illustration by Laura Weiszer)

The decor at the Real Food for Real Kids building in downtown Toronto is a vibrant medley of bright hues. Step into the cooking facility and you’ll see epoxy flooring in a deep Mediterranean blue—none of the blood red typically found on the floors of food-processing spaces. Lulu Cohen-Farnell and David Farnell, the married duo behind the catering company, purposely picked blue because it’s common in the daycare centres and elementary schools the company serves. The colour, which has the bonus of conveying calm and cheerfulness, serves as a subtle reminder to employees—who bop to music and wave friendly hellos to passersby—of their purpose: feeding healthy foods to more than 15,000 kids every day. “We were told blue would be harder to maintain, but we went for it anyway,” says Farnell as he points to the assembly line of kale and cheese sandwiches being distributed that day. “It’s a less stressful colour, and it’s a contributing factor to why our deliveries go out on time.”

Using colours cleverly is just one of the tactics the husband-and-wife team has implemented to connect employees to their “why”— a purpose that’s bigger than making money. While compensation and benefits matter to workers, research from Gallup shows that zeroing in on a mission is linked to higher employee engagement, better retention rates and increased productivity. Yet, according to a study by Deloitte University Press, more than a third of firms struggle to instil purpose and passion in their staff. Not so at RFRK, which has increased both its employee retention (in the high-turnover food-service industry, no less) and its rep as an employer of choice (the firm recently got 350 applications for an admin position) by making its people feel something very powerful: that their work matters.

At Real Food for Real Kids, rallying employees around a mission starts with the hiring process. Each one of its 92 employees (and 90 contract lunch club coaches) have been carefully selected to ensure they fit into the company’s playful but purpose-driven culture, whether their jobs involve packing up applesauce, mopping floors or maintaining client databases. It begins, believe it or not, with the job descriptions. For example, a posting for “super drivers” called for candidates who feel comfortable chatting with moms and who operate “like a cross between Captain Planet, a human GPS and Santa.” Sounds a lot more remarkable than “delivery guy,” doesn’t it?

This is a simple solution for weeding out people who may not care about your company’s mission, says Chelsea Willness, an associate professor who specializes in organizational behaviour at the University of Saskatchewan. “The language signals that this is a fun place to work that cares about children,” she says.

Once employees are hired at RFRK, they go through a comprehensive onboarding process in which they meet with the owners as a group for up to an hour to learn more about the company’s inception—a story that involves two fed-up parents on a mission to give kids healthier food options. The meeting is meant to be personal, educational and stirring. “I tell employees that some child-care centres don’t concern themselves with nutrition, but I say the change can start with us,” says Cohen-Farnell. “We can make food that will give kids fuel so they can grow and thrive.” It’s powerful stuff.

As far as perks go, RFRK’s skew toward those that deepen employee health and wellness. Its staff amenities—which include organic beverages, biking contests and standing desks—reinforce that the firm’s mission is not just “fluff,” says Willness; that its efforts to make people healthier don’t just apply to paying clients but to its workforce, too.

Cohen-Farnell and Farnell have been at it long enough to know that even the most ardent zeal can fade over time, so they have built mechanisms to keep apathy at bay. The company holds quarterly town hall meetings and produces monthly newsletters, and both are filled with praise and testimonials from the communities it serves. This consistent celebration of jobs well done reminds people that their work is helping others, says Denise Lloyd, founder of the consultancy EngagedHR in Victoria. It’s something that is especially useful for employees who might never get to meet the kids or who only hear about complaints. “Employees need to know how they’re making an impact,” says Lloyd. “When we do a good job and get feedback, we want to do it again because it feels good. It’s a fabulous cycle.”

All this is easier to do, of course, when your company’s line of work is as noble as nourishing children. It might be less clear when you’re, say, manufacturing pipes or providing IT services. If you can’t give your employees a feel-good “why,” “focus on the unmet need you’re filling, and tell the story of how this is making a difference for your customers,” advises John Hagel, cochairman of Deloitte LLP’s Center for the Edge research institute and author of several reports on staff passion and purpose.

Although RFRK is all about feeding little eaters, not every employee gets to be directly responsible for that outcome, such as custodians and data-entry assistants. Still, no matter how far removed employees are from the kitchen, RFRK makes sure they get a taste of their impact. Literally. At lunch, workers sample the meals that are delivered to the children—the jerk chicken is particularly popular—so they get to taste the difference the company’s work has in lunchrooms and, tacitly, understand how their roles make it happen.

“It’s like we’re eating our values,” explains Cohen-Farnell. “We’re planting a seed every day and instilling a purpose of being better and healthier.”