Finding Meaning in Unlikely Places: Making a Difference at The Container Store and Insomniac Games

Posted by Sarah Lewis-Kulin on April 30 2013

sarah_lewis-kulin By Sarah Lewis-Kulin

When job seekers are on the hunt for meaningful work, some careers seem to come with built-in impact. It won’t surprise you that the people at CHG Healthcare and Teach for America feel a lot of passion and pride in the positive impact their work is having in their communities. But healthcare and activist non-profits are not your only options when you want to feel like your work makes a difference.

 Take, for example, these two very different companies. The Container Store is a national chain focused on selling containers and storage solutions. The majority of its 6,000 employees work in part-time retail positions in over 60 sites scattered across the United States. On the other end of the spectrum is Insomniac Games, a video game developer headquartered in Burbank, CA. Its 186 are all employed full-time, are nearly all male, and most have BFA's, Computer Science or Engineering degrees.

On the surface of things, neither company’s services inherently suggest a higher sense of purpose. Yet, despite the variables of industry, size, budget and number of locations, people employed at both companies report that they feel they make a difference and that their work has special meaning.

The Container Store

Certainly one of the ways The Container Store (TCS) fosters a sense of impact in the organization is by giving away $600,000 in monetary and product donations in a single year. By tradition, 10% of the sales from the Grand Openings of each of its new stores are donated to a local non-profit, giving employees a chance to be proud of their local impact.

These donations are all the more meaningful to TCS employees because employees themselves are involved with the 1100 non-profits the organization has supported. Among hundreds of other examples, employees have volunteered (on company time) to build shelving for an Aids Service Center to give beneficiaries of free clothes the dignity of a real shopping experience; converted the basement of Movement 5280 into a pleasant and organized haven for young mothers to get child care resources; and donated materials to Free Arts NYC to support art-based mentoring programs to children in local schools and shelters.

The Container Store is also an early and vocal proponent of conscious capitalism and claims that “Someone doesn’t have to lose for someone else to win.”

But back in the stores, TCS employees aren’t just proud of what they do out in the world – but also of who they are together and how they treat each other. One of TCS’s most distinctive attributes is how committed they are to living their Foundation Principles, which provide guidance in treating TCS’s employees, customers and vendors with dignity and respect.

For example, employees are empowered to make decisions as though they were each the store manager, and they can trust that the store manager will support them. They receive extensive training, recording an average of 263 training hours per employee in their first year of employment, compared with the broader industry’s scant 8-hour investment. And the company says that its strategy of waiting to hire great employees (only 3% of applicants make the cut) is the reason it can afford to treat its employees this well – paying its people “50-100% more than what other retailers might pay.”

In one employee’s words, “The overriding thing that makes The Container Store a great place to work is the purpose-based business philosophy, supported by our Foundation Principles, where all stakeholders in the company (employees, customers, shareholders) are valued and all can be rewarded.”

A result of the widespread respect employees enjoy is a retail employment experience where employees don’t feel like cogs in a machine. TCS employees say they love helping their customers and are inspired by the solutions they have to provide and the responsibility they are afforded to do it. The vast majority of TCS employees (87%) actually look forward to coming to work each day. Whether they work in headquarters, in distribution or one of The Container Store’s 60 locations, the chance to see their product in action and know that their efforts are respected gives their retail employment experience a sense of purpose.

Insomniac Games

Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies often help employees get in touch with the impact of their work by bringing patients whose lives have been saved to tell their stories to employees. While one would be hard-pressed to describe video games as life-saving, the leaders at Insomniac Games try to keep their staff in touch with the personal impact of their work on fans by hosting Community Day events. Prior to the launch of new games, the company invites fans from across the globe to a Q&A panel with employees.  Lunch is provided, together with a tour of the studio, autograph signing and some free posters and games.

The chance for “Insomniacs” to meet directly with their fans is a great opportunity for the round-the-clock-working group to hear directly from those who most appreciate their efforts. The company tells us that “the adoration that our fans have for the work we do means more to our studio than anything. It's why we do what we do.” Fan letters are regularly posted on employees’ walls or emailed to the entire company and gifts like "fandy" (fan candy) are always in the kitchen to keep employees inspired during the long hours required to meet production deadlines.

One of the reasons that this adoration may be so meaningful is that Insomniac employees have a lot of input into the product decisions made at the company. As one employee puts it, “Insomniac has the philosophy that great ideas can come from anywhere or anyone on the team regardless of seniority. A lot of places say that but I think we really do that.”

The company also looks beyond its walls to donate $75,000 to various community charities in the last year, and to provide 16 hours per employee in company-paid volunteer time. Education is one of the more common focus areas for employees’ volunteer efforts and many employees choose to focus on sharing their passion for the digital arts with the next generation of gamers. Employees often speak at the local Hollywood Arts to disadvantaged homeless or poverty-level teens. Presentations typically center around skills that will give these teens a leg up in future career aspirations, like understanding key aspects of game development, or how to prepare a portfolio, or how to interview. The company also encourages and pays for employees to speak at high schools and colleges to help the next generation prepare for a career in game development, and their careers page exhorts all potential job applicants to “stay in school!”

For the Job Seeker Looking for Meaning

If you are looking for a position where your work can feel personally rewarding, don’t feel limited by industry.

  • Understand what you are passionate about. Whether you have a talent for drawing gun-toting aliens or organizing closets, there’s probably a workplace out there that values your passion.
  • Choose a workplace that genuinely respects its employees. Once you know your passion, the trick is to make sure you are putting it to work for a company that will actually appreciate it. It’s easy to write an inspiring vision for how you intend to treat your employees, but what’s different about the companies discussed above is that they live their words and have built environments where people are given leeway and motivation to actually contribute those talents.
  • Get your passion (and your new company’s services) in front of people who want it. No matter what you do, there is someone who could benefit from receiving your services or learning from your organization’s skills. Be creative about it and get in front of those people! Your community will benefit, and you and your colleagues will go home inspired by the impact your day-to-day work can have.

Have you found meaning in an unlikely place? How has your company encouraged your work to feel like more than just a job?