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Even before the pandemic hit, an employee in one of Microsoft's game-development studios started seeing the impact of mental-health stresses in her industry. Since the onset of Covid-19, her insights became more and more valuable. “She started a program, it’s called Project Spirit, and it launched within a single game studio–it is all about reducing or removing the stigma around mental health conditions,” said Katy Jo Wright, director of Gaming for Everyone at Xbox. “It revolves around providing education and awareness. It’s been cool to watch how it has taken off within one game studio, and now it's been expanded to all of the Xbox teams across the board.”

Wright was one of four speakers in a recent panel conversation titled “Reimagining Employees as Social Entrepreneurs: How to Cultivate a Purpose-driven, Inclusive Workforce,” part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival, an annual event that focused this year on The Rebuilders, “those innovative companies, leaders, strategies, and trends helping reimagine, reinvent and rebuild business, society, culture, and community.”

Moderator Afdhel Aziz, co-founder of Conspiracy of Love, a social-impact marketing agency, kicked off the discussion with a series of statistics about the current state of worker sentiment. In era of employee restlessness dubbed the Great Resignation, Aziz said, one in four workers are considering quitting their jobs after the pandemic, nearly two thirds of employees say Covid-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life, and 50% of workers say that they're now more likely than they were a year ago to voice their objections to management and engage in workplace protests. That sentiment, said Aziz, includes “new expectations on company leadership to not only espouse but live the values demanded of them by their organizations–or risk the consequences.” Among the panel’s insights:

Businesses Have to Drive the Solution

Workers increasingly want their paycheck to come with a sense of purpose. Wendy Woods, vice chair of social impact at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), believes that the drive to fulfill that expectation has to come from businesses. “With business being an engine of the economy, they not only have a responsibility, but also an opportunity,” she said. “Motivated employees are twice as productive,” Woods continued. “We start with inspired employees, who understand they're contributing to something greater in society. It’s real, fundamental purposes that motivate employees and ultimately end up driving performance.”

Getting there requires a holistic solution, comprising all branches of a company. Outdoor-goods cooperative REI, for example, maintains a quadruple bottom line in terms of its stakeholders: employees, members, the business, and society. “Our decision to close our stores on Black Friday started with a very simple question: What is Black Friday like for our employees?” said Ben Steele, Rei’s EVP and chief customer officer. “As a cooperative, we're a community of 21 million members, 15,000 employees, and we want to create amazing experiences, amazing impacts for all of them. So we're always asking ourselves, how do we bring that community together to have an impact greater than the sum of its parts?” A recent example is Cooperative Action Network, a grassroots-advocacy toolkit gives everyone in REI’s community an easy way to take a stand on policies and legislation that impact the outdoors.

Culture Is the First Product a Company Makes 

This means employees can be the first evangelists. Play is a fundamental human need, and the Xbox division of Microsoft abides by the inclusive creed “Gaming for Everyone.” In fact, while each of us has a different definition of fun, about 3 billion people play video games. “We need to be intentional in creating different types of fun,” said Wright. “When we think about gaming for everyone, it really is going to take every single employee. It takes each employee thinking how they're going to create an inclusive experience.”

In fact, Xbox’s adaptive controller for people with limited mobility, launched in September 2018, was first conceived at a company-wide hackathon three years earlier in a collaboration with military veterans who were coming back from service with injuries and were unable to play video games with conventional controllers. “It was a group of employees who stuck with it throughout. It really opened up the way people think about gaming, from physical or occupational therapy to just play,” said Wright.

This is the definition of intrapreneurs, who are employees in a company that are behaving in an entrepreneurial way to do some good. “We believe the solutions are out there,” said Carolina García Jarayam, executive director of the Elevate Prize Foundation, which supports purpose-driven innovators. “It's about giving people the impetus and confidence to tackle these issues. Solutions are in their own company.”

There’s Another Side of the Coin

It's not all a bed of roses for employees preaching the gospel of their organization. “The truth is that most companies are not like the ones in this [panel],” said García Jarayam. When a company’s behavior contradicts its stated values, or those of employees, the workers may be inclined to cancel their leaders and publicly oppose their leadership. In the case of the video game company Activision Blizzard, hundreds of employees walked out in July to protest workplace sexism and discrimination in July 2021.

To BCG’s Woods, avoiding this kind of situation is a relatively straightforward matter. “If you listen to your teams, and your employees, you’ll understand what they find challenging and what their aspirations are. You won't end up in situations where they need to walk out,” she said, adding that, other than listening, there's also a component of respecting and appreciating. “So when we see some of these extremes of, you know, thousands of employees walking out, thousands of them protesting, it’s because they don't have a voice otherwise.”

REI’s Steele shared this point of view, he said, “but I also think that it’s about communicating clearly, to make sure that you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve, that your actions back up your words, and that folks feel that they’re a part of that shared journey together,” he said. “If it’s together, we’re trying to achieve things, and they’re not always going to be easy, and we’re not always going to agree on exactly how we do it, but we trust each other.” Not only does this dynamic foster a positive environment, but also brings disproportionately positive results. “A big part of it is going to be a relinquishing of power,” said García Jarayam. “It's a real understanding of what power means. I find it to be an amazing opportunity.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.