High employee engagement is a goal shared by most company leaders, as it’s widely viewed as an indicator of a healthy corporate culture that many believe breeds higher levels of productivity, retention and recruitment. Deloitte reports that 87% of executives rate culture and employee engagement as their biggest HR related challenge.

But there’s no universal consensus on how companies can achieve high engagement, and in fact there isn’t even agreement on what defines employee engagement.

As George LaRocque wrote in his recent #HRWINS executive brief, “Where Purpose Meets Performance: Can HR Tech Solve Culture?”, the experts studying employee engagement have examined everything from happiness to community embeddedness, social network analysis, motivation and incentives, collaboration, personality and culture assessments, and more. The myriad opinions on what defines employee engagement clouds the discussion and makes it all the more elusive.

LaRocque took a stab at understanding employee engagement by looking at companies with successful cultures to understand what they’re doing right. What drives engagement for today’s employees? Where do employers perceive the best ROI for engagement? How are culture and HR driving business results? And what technology are companies using to enable and reinforce their healthy cultures?

What he found was surprising, and bucked some trends suggested by many thought leaders in the space.

Employee engagement, for starters, is one of several factors that goes into a healthy culture, not something that you hope for after the fact. “Employee engagement is not an outcome,” Larocque found, “but one strong supporting pillar to culture and business results.”

Employee engagement is usually measured annually, but that only gives us a snapshot of one point in time and fails to keep up with today’s business cycles. That’s why the low level of engagement has changed little over the past 25 years since engagement started to be widely measured.

On the other hand, strong corporate cultures are often aligned with business success, just as weak cultures have been correlated with business failures. Deloitte finds that “mission driven” companies have 30% higher levels of innovation and 40% higher levels of employee retention. LaRocque notes the plentiful evidence showing how companies with performance-enhancing cultures far outperform those without it in terms of revenue growth, stock price growth, and net income growth.

What LaRocque found is that “perhaps the strongest component of culture that resonates with employees, of ALL generations, is having purpose and meaning in their work.” In fact, 54.7% of respondents said that meaningful work with a purpose is the factor that most impacts their feeling of engagement in their work. This exceeded competitive pay (46.9%), benefits (35.1%), and a clear career path (24.8%). Acknowledgment of a job well done rated the lowest, with only .9% of respondents stating that it was a major impact in their feeling of engagement at work.

According to LaRocque’s survey of more than 400 people, 53% said that they would choose meaningful work with less pay over less meaningful work with higher pay. In some age groups as many as 63% selected the same.

The link between a feeling of purpose and engagement is one that we at Causecast see and hear about from so many of our clients and beyond. Businesses are clamoring to build meaningful cultures that resonate with employees, especially Millennials, who are strongly drawn to companies that foster purpose-filled work, regardless of whether that is the company’s core value proposition.

Companies increasingly understand that building a rich culture of giving back is no longer optional if they want to compete at the highest levels. As noted by LaRocque’s report, as Baby Boomers retire and Gen Xers are not populous enough to fill the void, companies are struggling to fill the leadership vacuum by turning to Millennials, who are short on experience and skills. The solution to accelerate this process is by strengthening culture, which increases productivity and drives business results.

Every company has a culture; it’s the belief system that shapes everything employees do at their jobs. Is your culture a positive, healthy one that energetically propels success? Or is it an apathetic or even negative one that dampens enthusiasm and productivity?

Employees who understand the culture and values of their company are able to inform their behavior accordingly, and this ripples across every interaction internally with other employees and externally with customers and the marketplace at large. “Understanding the meaning of work illuminates its purpose—how one’s actions impact the organization, and for what greater good,” LaRocque writes.

LaRocque’s study also examines how HR technology might be able to fix culture. “It is time for employers, via HR, to meet the employee where they are, engaging them with core benefits and engaging core HR technology,” he writes.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I founded a company that could automate and perfect the process of employee volunteer and giving programs. Causecast’s mission is to deliver a social, mobile and interactive experience that connects employees to the values of their company and the greater purpose of their work.

Employees need to feel passionate about their work to be engaged, and purpose is a pathway to passion. So when you’re thinking about employee engagement, remember that creating an irresistible culture of giving back is an essential part of your engagement goals, and leveraging the right technology is important to show employees that purpose is a priority.