Many organizations stand at a pivotal moment as employees return to office environments.
The big question is whether people still have the same sense of belonging as they felt before the pandemic. Is the cultural chemistry still there or is there a chasm and the link to the business broken?
Prolonged periods of remote work have led to many people feeling less connected to their employer and, for some, the idea of a fresh start will be far more exciting than the prospect of rebuilding relationships and grappling with new hybrid working arrangements. This could leave companies vulnerable to what is being called, the ‘Great Resignation’.
So why is ‘belonging’ suddenly part of the diversity and inclusion conversation? And how can organizations re-establish and reinforce this crucial connection?
Increased focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (EDIB)
Equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (EDIB) has become a central issue for organizations over the last decade and some progress has been made.
The addition of ‘belonging’ to EDIB comes from a belief that when people feel they belong in an organization, when the feel valued and secure enough to be their authentic self, then they have greater capacity to develop the necessary mindset and behaviors that enable equity, diversity and inclusion to thrive.
The easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the legacy left behind has added a real sense of urgency to the EDIB debate.
Whilst hybrid working practices are seemingly more flexible, a potential drawback is the possibility of exacerbating discrimination based on factors such as gender, technology poverty or physical ability.
One example seen in a recently published study from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that both poverty and race affect young people’s access to the Internet and therefore access to the benefits of hybrid working.
While every element of the EDIB agenda is important to provide a safe and just working environment, there seems to be general consensus that providing a sense of belonging is a strong place to start.
Without that, recruitment and development programs are likely to fail because people who do not feel welcomed or valued will leave the organization.
The importance of ‘belonging’
Belonging has long-been established as a fundamental human need. Without it, people can suffer from a decline in mental wellbeing, including self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
In the workplace, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that belonging has equally significant implications for emotion, cognition and performance. In particular, a sense of not belonging at work can impact self-efficacy and self-esteem.
As well as ensuring the wellbeing of employees, research shows that organizations with diverse and inclusive cultures have:
- Higher revenue growth
- Greater readiness to innovate
- Increased ability to recruit a diverse talent pool
- Four times higher employee retention
To deliver these benefits and bring about the change required to fully embed a truly inclusive culture where people feel they belong will take time, but there are a number of steps organizations can take now to mitigate the more immediate risks posed by the post-pandemic talent exodus.
Increasing the sense of belonging
There are several levers that HR, leaders and managers can use to start to rebuild the sense of belonging:
Sponsorship by the C-suite will clearly communicate to everyone the importance of the work around belonging. Examples of tangible actions include senior leaders and managers:
- Acting as role models
- Fronting communication and town hall events
- Talking about examples of good ‘belonging’ behavior
- Calling out behaviors that do the opposite
Measure and report
Belonging is a perception which differs from person to person so the only way to truly understand how people are feeling is to ask them. Designing a set of questions to explore the elements of belonging will:
- Inform the C-Suite of progress of interventions
- By using demographic questions, identify if responses differ across populations within the organization
- Enable the interventions to be modified in response to changes in employee feedback
The hidden communication of this listening activity is to really underline the commitment of senior leaders to the EDIB program.
Reignite employee communities
Many organizations support Employee Resource Groups (ERG) as a part of their EDIB commitment. These groups will have had to function remotely over the last two years. To help strengthen the sense of belonging within these groups, organizations can proactively help reignite them by offering increased access to company resources.
Facilitating a return to face-to-face meetings will increase the proximity and interaction that leads to a sense of belonging.
Create a storytelling environment
Each person’s experience during COVID-19 restrictions will be unique. Studies have shown that telling authentic and personal stories about the organization is one of the most powerful tools to drive and sustain employee engagement. It helps meet the emotional needs people have at work – to be secure, to belong, to be part of something meaningful and successful.
The role HR, leaders and managers will be two-fold:
- To create the psychologically safe space where people feel comfortable telling these stories without fear of ridicule, sanction or repercussion.
- To help employees see the connection between the stories they tell and the vison and values of the organization.
Belonging in post-COVID-19 recovery
Working through COVID-19 has inevitably had a negative impact on employees’ sense of belonging and for organizations to mitigate the impact they need to consciously take action to rebuild it.
Failure to do so can reduce employee wellbeing and performance, as well as increase the likelihood of staff turnover.
To fully realize the benefits of building a sense of belonging, organizations should view EDIB as a long-term culture change project, given the same gravitas, investment and commitment as other major transformation initiatives.
However, in the short-term, by taking the steps outlined above, leaders can begin to build bridges to cross the chasm that lies ahead and reignite the cultural spark.