Remote Work and the (Renewed) Importance of Belonging
March 23, 2021
March 23, 2021

Some anniversaries are treasured. Others, not so much. At the one-year anniversary of so many of us working from makeshift spaces (everywhere from bedrooms to broom closets), I’m finding that just about every conversation we have with clients inevitably broaches the topic of returning to the office.

The dialogue isn’t just about when, but how: Should we remain fully remote on a permanent basis? Shift to a hybrid model? What would the transition look like? Most clients are planning some sort of shift. They recognize that this isn’t merely a policy matter—these decisions have real ramifications for their operating models

One of the biggest challenges related to this decision is how to sustain—and build—workplace culture in a world where our teams are distributed and the majority of our human connection takes place through a computer screen. I believe this challenge is also an opportunity. An opportunity to focus on a dynamic which has always been important to the ways people work together, and ultimately to business results. It’s about belonging. 

I recently facilitated a virtual meetup on this topic on behalf of one of my favorite organizations: POWER. We asked ourselves difficult questions like: What is belonging and how is it different than inclusion? How does it impact employees and organizations? How has workplace belonging been impacted by the pandemic? And how do we create and nurture a culture of belonging when fewer conversations are had in person? 

POWER meetups are always enriching, and I left the session with my wheels turning on the topic, particularly as it relates to the future of the workplace. Specifically: 

The distinction between inclusion and belonging is more crucial to understand than ever. In a more hybrid or remote work environment, leaders will need to understand—and work towards—belonging. It’s often said that inclusion is about having a voice, and belonging is about being heard. But I believe Brene Brown’s explanation is the most striking. The opposite of belonging, she notes, is fitting in. Assessing. Acclimating. True belonging not only allows us to be who we are, but also celebrates our differences.   

Pre-pandemic, 40% of employees said they felt isolated at work, and that figure has risen dramatically this past year. Too often, we mistake assimilation for actual belonging. I believe that belonging becomes increasingly critical as employees are working in different locations: it ties them into the mission of the company, it plays a key role in retention, and most importantly, it is a catalyst for collaboration. When we aren’t physically together all the time even after we exit the pandemic, leaders will have to work harder to create, foster, and measure a culture of belonging. 

Creating a culture of belonging begins with a leadership team who welcomes vulnerability. This means bringing our whole selves to interactions with our teams, recognizing bias, and embracing moments of discomfort. Bringing our whole selves to work became easier this year, as the barrier between work and life disappeared. This has included not only the pandemic puppy barking during conference calls and the kids waving hello during mom’s Zoom meeting, but also sharing how we are all coping with the worry, loss, and uncertainty that has colored this time period.

These pandemic impacts, coupled with widespread protests against racial discrimination and violence, have challenged many of us to rethink the way we look at the world, to broaden our perspectives, and to be more aware of the biases we each have as individuals. Unconscious bias training and ongoing education is the first step in this journey. 

Leaders who allow themselves to be vulnerable—to be seen by their teams as learning, growing, and struggling—create room for others to do so. This sets the table for establishing that sense of belonging. Many leaders rose to the occasion this past year, and we can’t stop now. It’s up to all of us to keep practicing at this as we move forward. 

Meetings will matter in entirely new ways. We’ve been reflecting on the role of meetings in a more hybrid work environment and surveying our CHRO contacts at some of the largest companies in the region. After reviewing the feedback, we’re certain of one thing: The meeting is the new office. Serendipitous interactions, cube-side chatter, and team lunch outings don’t happen the way they once did. Culture—and the sense of belonging—must be built through meetings now more than ever before.

That means we have to cement our ability to use meetings for connection and not just getting the work done. Objectives and agendas will need to shift and broaden to build, sustain, and enhance connection. Some companies—including ours—have built this into the fabric of the way they operate, in everything from a small group huddle to a company-wide session. This is often more challenging for larger organizations, but we are seeing progress. We will need to become more intentional about this to build belonging and positive workplace culture in the years ahead.

As we exit the pandemic, we have an opportunity to reshape many things – not just where we work, but how we work together. If we can replace long-standing feelings of isolation with a sense of belonging, it will be a win-win for employees and employers alike.