What is belonging in a workplace context, and what does it look like?

Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand with  what a sense of belonging looks like in workplaces. You’ve probably heard Vanessa Meyers infamous quote, and if we add belonging in, it looks a little like this.

Imagine thanks to Quozio

However this is not a blog about DEI per se . There are many people who are specialists in this area, and I don’t claim to be a member of their gang. No matter how cool it might be.

If you’re curious about how you can boost DEI in your organisation, Culture Amp produced this great downloadable resource, 6 actionable areas for improving DEI at your workplace.

No, friends, this blog is all about the B. B for Belonging that is.

Why do we need to care about employees feeling a sense of belonging at work?

Apart from the importance of adopting a people first approach, something I’ve blogged about previously here, let me offer you some stats illustrating why fostering a sense of belonging for your employees needs to be included in your culture strategy.

When people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential. (Harvard Business Review)

Or as Group Vice President of Gartner, Ania Kransiweska, says:

“Belonging is a key component of inclusion. When employees are truly included, they perceive that the organization cares for them as individuals — their authentic selves…It’s good for employees — and ultimately improves business performance.”

Pub test definition of workplace belonging.

Ok, ok, in all honesty, I didn’t actually run this test at a pub. Although I’m writing this blog on a wintery Melbourne Friday afternoon, and suddenly I’m rethinking my strategy…

Instead, my ‘pub test’ research of this question actually consisted of me asking the following question on my socials:

What does having a sense of belonging at work look like for you?

Here are some of my favourite answers:

I feel valued when my opinion is sought out and when any suggestion is acted on or implemented I like I have contributed, and I am connected to my workplace and my team.

I feel like I belong when I am valued not just for what I do professionally, but also for the person I am outside of office.

I feel I belong when my skills and strengths are sought and I get positive feedback from colleagues I respect. I also feel included when my colleagues want to be my friends.

What can leaders do to foster a sense of belonging within their teams?

  1. Have regular, genuine conversations with your team.

Note: it’s important to tailor how you have those conversations with your individual team members’ preferred style of communication.

For example, there will be team members who love to sit and chat, whilst others prefer brief to-the-point conversations. When checking in with remote workers, some people like to see a face at the end of a screen whilst others are happy with phone calls. Other team members will be perfectly content with email check-ins. In summary, as the afore quoted HBR article notes,

Learning how to engage with employees in a way that they feel comfortable is key to creating a sense of community. 

2. Practice the kindness principle.

When someone is saying something to you, don’t assume they are speaking from anything other than a good place.

Keep assuming this unless and until you are proven otherwise.

3. Leave your Bias’ back in the Noughties.

The ability to have safe, healthy yet robust debate is a key feature of a psychologically safe workplace. And in order to have robust discussions, we first need to check our biases at the door and instead be a little more Stephen Covey-like. 

That is, we should seek first to understand, then to be understood.

When someone shares a point of view with you that is completely foreign to your life experience, don’t automatically dismiss it simply because it differs from your worldview. 

Instead listen carefully, and maybe ask them to explain more to you. You may not end up converting to their opinion, but you will learn something new – and have helped make that person feel a little more like they belong.

4. Show vulnerability

Brene Brown’s work in this area is well known. Her Tedtalk (one of the most watched of all Ted talks EVER) was released in 2010, that is, well before Covid rocked our world.

However Brown’s work has come into it’s own over the last two and a half years, as employees have made it clear they want and need to see their leaders display vulnerability. 

Side note: this doesn’t mean you have to share all your personal woes. In fact, that will probably make your direct reports feel decidedly uncomfortable. 

On the other hand, sharing how you are feeling about the challenges of energy shortages, inflation, fuel prices and/or the war in Ukraine and how it is impacting the business? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

5. Build connection

There has been much debate about employees returning to the office in recent months. In one camp we have people like Tesla’s Elon Musk  who recently sent an email to staff insisting they all come back to the office full time or be sacked.

Contrast this to  Atlassian’s ‘Team Anywhere’ approach (coupled with their recent cheeky ‘any Tesla employees want to come and work for us?’ Twitter jab, in response to Musk’s email). 

If your business falls more into the Musk camp,  or if you are taking a hybrid approach and mandating regular days in the office, then make sure you prioritise building meaningful connections on those days.

Leaders should carefully consider who needs to attend and why, the objectives, the activities, and how to craft a structured agenda that still leaves room for emergent topics, spontaneous conversation, socializing, and collaboration. 

Consider a recurring schedule, like “Team Wednesdays” for social lunch and group problem solving, while remaining flexible to changing employee needs. Give employees a reason to want to come In! [Mckinsey]

6. Above all else, encourage authenticity.

Remember that belonging is all about ‘dancing how you want to dance’; or in other words, employees should be able to come to work and feel that they can be and act their authentic selves.

Unless they are a *brilliant jerk. In that case they need to learn how to correct their behaviour, pronto. Or exit stage left.

You can read more about why brilliant jerks are the nemesis of great culture here.

Having a psychologically safe workplace is a perquisite to encouraging authenticity from your team. Equally as important is that leaders need to connect with their team members.

That means they need to know them. And what goes hand in hand with getting to know your team? Connection.

A good place to start is by engaging in team building activities. Atlassian produced this helpful guide 18 virtual team building activities and games for 2022.

Keen to learn more ways to rebuild and/or maintain meaningful connection in your business?

Here’s a link to a previous Workology Co blog on just that topic, which included this infographic:

There are a myriad of ways you can foster a sense of belonging in your workplace. The key is to accept it is an essential ingredient of workplace culture, and then ensure you include strategies to promote it in your overall culture strategy.

Need help pinpointing how and when to start?

Book a time here and let’s start planning.