Feeling like you belong at work isn’t simply a perk, it’s a universal human need. People are wired to seek connection and acceptance, especially when the seas of change get choppy, which is why organizations are clamoring to understand what makes employees and job seekers tick—and how they can cultivate the ever-elusive culture of belonging.
According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Report, a sense of belonging and a positive company culture are non-negotiables for many employees. Respondents flagged flexibility, well-being, and a focus on professional development as their top concerns, sending leaders everywhere a crystal clear message: This is what we value. This is what we’re basing career decisions on.
When employees feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work every day, they’re more likely to engage, collaborate, and push the envelope of what’s possible to produce your business’s most innovative work. In that same LinkedIn report, employees who feel cared for and a sense of belonging were 3.2 times more likely to be happy at work and 3.7 times more likely to recommend working for the company.
Naturally entwined with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), belonging is a distinct element in the mix. Belonging is the feeling of being part of the club; of mattering to and being accepted by others. It’s the ability to just be who you are and bring your full self to work. Inclusion, on the other hand, is the behavior or intentional act that drives this emotional outcome.
So, what can businesses (read: leaders) do to create a culture where all are welcome—and encouraged—to bring their full selves to work? Here are a few ways to help sow the seeds of belonging so they take root across your organization.
Leaders need to lead in new and different ways
As a result of massive social and geopolitical events (we’ve experienced a few lately), employees are reprioritizing work and the role it plays in their lives, as well as the standards they hold their leaders to.
Whether it’s greater flexibility or better work-life balance, different employee demographics want different things. But an increasingly universal desire is for leaders to get to know their teams on a deeper, more personal level. They want their bosses to fundamentally get them: their strengths, passions, and interests, with the expectation that leaders should then demonstrate how they can support employees’ growth and development.
Simply put, there is no “easy button” for creating a culture where employees feel seen and heard. Leaders need to invest serious time and energy into fostering relationships. While this has always been part of the job, some leaders haven’t prioritized the mentoring sessions and one-on-one lunches. The informal check-ins and impromptu chit-chat.
Remote and hybrid working arrangements might make the logistics a bit complicated, but that’s all the more reason to pay employees individualized attention. The act of connecting alone will make team members feel that they belong, and the insights they share along the way can further illuminate their wants and needs, values and goals.
Support employees at all levels—from new hires to company veterans
Before a fresh recruit even steps foot on-site, they should have an understanding of your organization’s culture and values. They need to be able to envision themselves as a part of the team and know where they fit and how their contributions can impact the business. Your company’s commitment to belonging and inclusion should be center stage in the onboarding process, especially for the work-from-home crowd.
New hires aren’t the only ones who need to see and feel a sense of belonging—tenured and recently promoted employees need support, too. There can be a tendency to overlook these groups because it’s assumed they have it down pat. But there’s a learning curve that follows every promotion, and employees may struggle to find their footing in a new role. This can be stressful even for the most tenured industry veterans on your team.
Performance management practices may need to change if they’re not striking the right balance between the business’s goals and outcomes and the individual’s goals and outcomes. It’s up to leadership to ask the questions—what are we seeing, hearing, and feeling from our workforce?—answer them honestly, and analyze and operationalize them into a culture of belonging. This, again, requires the gift of time; there’s no shortcut to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, and there’s no substitute for committed leadership.
Establish equitable expectations around the Great Return
As employees trade their sweatpants for khakis and get reacquainted with their commutes, leaders will need to address DE&I and the belonging gap differently in our new hybrid working reality. Processes and protocols are necessary to prevent issues such as proximity bias, which happens when managers favor employees who are closest to them physically.
Not every employee’s preference can be accommodated—for example, some employees might prefer to work from home, but their job requires on-site participation. Leaders need to read the room and be aware that there may be a disconnect between what the c-suite and frontline employees want, particularly when it comes to underrepresented groups. Research by Future Forum found that 86% of Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers and 81% of Asian/Asian American and Black knowledge workers would prefer a hybrid or remote work arrangement, compared with 75% of white knowledge workers.
The data indicates there might be issues bubbling beneath the surface, and leaders will have to confront potentially difficult questions: Why do some employees prefer to work from home vs. the office? Do they feel disconnected or excluded from the team? How can we bridge this gap? How can we ensure they feel that they belong? Ultimately, the onus falls on leadership to bring those longing to belong into the fold. Spending time learning what employees need to feel like an integral part of the organization is crucial, whether they’re working “on campus” or from their home office. Perks and happy hours aren’t culture, but showing up for your team, actively seeking their feedback, and ensuring they feel seen and heard is culture—with a capital C.