Belonging at Work: What It Is And Why It's Important
The recent pandemic-induced disruptions have created challenges for businesses and employees alike. Changes to traditional work practices, such as the increased adoption of work-from-home and hybrid models, have left employees feeling isolated and employers risking a deterioration in workplace culture.
One outcome of these challenges is that they've highlighted an area of workplace experience recognized as fundamental to an organization's success—a sense of belonging at work.
Deloitte's 2020 Human Capital Trends report ranked belonging as the top human capital issue organizations face today. In response, Deloitte recently included "a sense of belonging" in their set of key factors that influence a worker's experience in an organization.
But what, exactly, is a sense of belonging at work?
And why is it considered so important for business success?
In this article, we'll explain why. We'll also look at practical ways your organization can create and nurture a culture of workplace belonging.
👥 What does it mean to belong at work?
Employees feel a sense of belonging at work when they feel accepted and included for who they are and can relate to their workplace culture.
But a sense of belonging is a nuanced concept that's described differently by different organizations.
Shonna Waters, Vice President of Alliance Solutions at BetterUp, describes belonging as "when a person feels included and accepted for their authentic self".
Cornell University considers a sense of belonging for its faculty and staff to be "the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity".
Whatever its description, however, a sense of belonging can be defined by a few essential elements.
👀 The elements of belonging
Based on research by Coqual, a global, nonprofit think tank addressing bias and uncovering barriers to advancement for underrepresented populations in the workplace, the notion of belonging can be distilled into the following:
- Being seen—when employees are recognized, rewarded, and respected by their colleagues.
- Being connected—positive and authentic social interactions amongst employees, managers, and senior leaders.
- Being supported—by peers and senior leaders to give employees what they need to get their work done.
- Being proud—when employees feel aligned with their workplace purpose, vision, and values.
These elements of belonging are evidenced by employee feedback. LinkedIn's Inside the Mind of Today's Candidate report, for instance, found that employees valued the following factors in their workplace experience:
- Being recognized for accomplishments.
- Having opportunities to express opinions freely.
- Feeling that their contributions matter.
- Feeling that their colleagues and workplace care about them as a person.
While these factors have obvious appeal, what is it about a sense of belonging that makes it so important for organizations today?
❗️ Why it's important to build a sense of belonging at work
Simply put, a sense of belonging is positive for employees and businesses alike:
- Employees benefit by feeling less isolated and enjoying a better workplace experience and enhanced well-being.
- Businesses benefit by improved employee job performance and productivity, a happier workforce, and increased profitability.
And there's plenty of evidence to support this, which you can discover in the following sections.
🎁 How a sense of belonging helps employees
In his influential research, American psychologist Abraham Maslow identified belonging as a fundamental human need. A sense of belonging, argues Maslow, is a necessary ingredient for humans amongst a hierarchy of needs. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs identified by Maslow are:
- physiological (food, clothing, shelter),
- safety (personal and job security, health, resources),
- love and belonging needs (friendship, intimacy, sense of connection),
- esteem (respect, status, recognition, freedom), and
- self-actualization (desire to become the most that one could be).
This idea continues to be supported today—a recent study by US and Canadian academics found that Maslow's needs are just as relevant as they were when first published in 1943.
So, a sense of belonging plays a fundamental role in your employees' lives—let's look at a few examples.
Avoiding the pain of exclusion
By feeling that they belong, employees are less likely to feel excluded.
Social exclusion can be a powerful source of pain for individuals, not merely in the psychological sense. Research shows that the pain of exclusion is experienced just like physical pain.
Moreover, a recent survey of US workers by EY found that a majority of respondents thought of exclusion as a form of bullying in the workplace. This was particularly so for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Stress and sadness, or simply feeling ignored, are also commonly associated with feeling excluded, according to the study.
Enhanced workforce experience
Deloitte describes an employee's workforce experience as a combination of their lived experiences at work and how they feel about their organization.
Factors such as outdated working methods, poor workplace culture, and insufficient attention to DEI (i.e., diversity, equity, and inclusion) can detract from an employee's workforce experience.
Unfortunately, many organizations were not meaningfully addressing these factors leading up to 2020, according to Deloitte, and the pandemic only made matters worse.
But as organizations struggle to transform the experiences of their employees in an evolving work environment, Deloitte believes that an employee's sense of belonging is one of the essential factors that influence their workforce experience. By fostering a culture of belonging, organizations have a better chance of improving their employees' experience at work.
Tip: If your organization takes the necessary steps to build a diverse and inclusive workplace culture, you will be perceived as an ally and have a better chance to attract diverse and innovative employees. Inclusion efforts are worth the price.
Improved employee well-being
A sobering statistic from the EY survey is that 40% of respondents feel isolated at work. Feelings of isolation can detract from well-being.
"When loneliness becomes a chronic experience, it can harm our health and well-being," points out Jennifer Moss, an organizational culture researcher.
Businesses can combat the effects of isolation by focusing on employee well-being from the moment an employee joins their organization. Emphasizing well-being during onboarding, for instance, sets the tone for a positive experience from the very start of an employee's workplace journey.
Also crucial for employee well-being is a sense of belonging. Firms like Qualtrics are recognizing the value of belonging for well-being—they found that people who identify strongly with a need for belonging are almost three times as likely to have a greater sense of well-being than those who don't.
📈 How a sense of belonging helps businesses
Based on Deloitte's 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 79% of organizations consider belonging important for their success.
Research by BetterUp found that when employees feel like they belong, companies reap substantial bottom-line benefits, including:
- 56% improved job performance,
- 50% lower turnover risk,
- 75% fewer employee sick days.
Similarly, based on its Great Attrition Survey, McKinsey found that 51% of employees who left their jobs in the past six months lacked a sense of belonging at work.
There's a clear emerging message for businesses to heed—belonging matters for business success.
Let's look at a few examples.
Improved employee engagement
According to Gallup, employee engagement relates to the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace. Engaged employees are more productive, focused, and attentive to customer needs. All of this translates to meaningful business outcomes—based on Gallup's analysis, businesses with highly engaged employees experience:
- 41% reduced absenteeism,
- 17% increased productivity,
- 10% better customer ratings,
- 20% increased sales,
- 21% greater profitability.
And guess what? According to Achievers' 2021 Culture of Belonging Report, a better sense of belonging promotes stronger engagement. This is also supported by Cornell University, which found that feelings of belonging correlate to high levels of engagement in its faculty and staff. Engagement leads to better collaboration, problem-solving, and decision-making.
It makes sense, therefore, for organizations to harness a sense of belonging as a part of their employee engagement strategies and action plans.
Enhanced employee enablement
Employee enablement means giving employees whatever they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability. This includes tools, resources, and training that can help employees make the most of their efforts and ramp up their productivity.
But providing tools and resources isn't enough. The key is providing the right tools and resources based on employees' expectations of what they're capable of. In this sense, there's a strong relationship between employee engagement and enablement—the more engaged employees are, the more enabled they can be, as they'll have a stronger sense of what they need to do their jobs well.
So, by boosting levels of employee engagement, a stronger sense of belonging also enhances employee enablement.
Stronger employee empowerment
Employee empowerment relates to how organizations give their employees autonomy and control over their day-to-day activities. Employees are more likely to achieve their full potential when given a greater degree of self-reliance and independence that comes with empowerment.
And a sense of belonging can be a potent way to empower employees, suggests Women Who Code, a community for the representation of women in technology. Fostering feelings of belonging is particularly important for female employees, studies have shown, who suffer disproportionately from feelings of isolation in male-dominated disciplines.
A stronger sense of belonging also helps to integrate women and minority groups into an organization's culture, lifting their performance and facilitating stronger, more dynamic, and more diverse workplace teams. This can have tangible benefits for businesses—a 2015 McKinsey study found that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors, while ethnically-diverse companies outperform by up to 35%.
More effective diversity, equity, and inclusion programs
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs have received a lot of attention and resources over recent years—businesses spent an estimated $7.5 billion in 2020 and are projected to spend over $15 billion by 2026. But despite this, many companies have reported that their DEI programs have largely failed.
Some organizations are addressing this by recognizing the value of belonging to DEI programs. Cornell University, for instance, considers that a sense of belonging helps its faculty and staff share ideas, confidently speak up, and fully contribute to the University's success, which helps unlock the power and value of diversity at the University.
Upskilling firm, Degreed, has taken a more direct approach—it has added belonging as a distinct element of its DEI program, creating an expanded 'DEIB' program.
Susie Lee, senior vice president at Degreed, explains why:
While diversity, equity, and inclusion have important roles, they focus on metrics and behaviors, whereas belonging focuses on emotions. This emotional connection has reaped valuable benefits for Degreed—its employees have reported that a sense of belonging is a key reason for wanting to work at the company.
💻 The challenge of belonging in a remote and hybrid environment
The shift to work-from-home and hybrid work models has made things even harder for employers. These models make it particularly difficult for employees to feel like they belong.
Plus, it's hard to integrate into the culture and processes of an organization when there are limited opportunities for physical connection.
Zavvy's tools and programs can help through the following practical suggestions for integrating remote employees:
- For new hires, use onboarding programs that keep the remote experience at their core.
- Strengthen the connection between leaders and employees through relevant and purposeful training.
- Encourage virtual meetup rituals, such as coffee or lunch roulettes.
- Centralize and streamline your organization's information to make it easier for employees to understand essential workflow practices and processes regardless of their physical location.
❓ How to create a culture of belonging at work
While everyone has a role to play in building a culture of belonging—from senior leaders to managers to all employees—organizations need to lay the foundations.
But how can you do this?
Deloitte's Workforce Experience by Design offers a suggestion by describing three mutually reinforcing attributes that organizations should strive for to foster a sense of belonging:
- Comfort—individuals should feel comfortable at work, be treated fairly, and be respected by their colleagues and leaders.
- Connection—individuals should have meaningful relationships with their co-workers and feel connected to the organization's goals.
- Contribution—individuals should understand how they contribute to meaningful outcomes, common goals, and the company culture.
The Achievers Workforce Institute offers further guidance—they've set up a five-pillar framework on how to create a sense of belonging at work:
- You should welcome new hires with introductions to the organizational culture and community.
- You should acknowledge your employees as unique individuals and recognize them for what they are.
- You should ensure that your employees feel included by being valued and accepted without reservation.
- You should support your employees through consistent and meaningful nurturing and development.
- Ensure that your employees feel connected across a diverse workforce.
With these principles in mind, let's look at practical ways to build a sense of belonging in the workplace.
💡 Practical ways for creating a sense of belonging in your workplace
At Zavvy, we have various tools and programs that directly cater to the principles for creating a sense of belonging in the workplace.\
You can incorporate these into practical ways for creating, maintaining, and enhancing a culture of belonging in your own organization:
- Make new hires feel welcome from their first day through effective, thoughtful, and efficient onboarding strategies.
- Complement onboarding strategies with a buddy program—this helps to ease new effective, thoughtful, and efficient onboarding strategies employees' anxiety by pairing them up with trusted individuals to whom they can relate from the moment they join your organization.
- Enhance employees' engagement and get to know them as individuals by incorporating a feedback program that emphasizes their performance and growth.
- Create a psychologically safe space by checking in with employees through regular one-on-one meetings.
- Make employees feel genuinely supported by creating an environment that fosters a culture of empathy.
Help employees feel connected across your organization through programs that promote meaningful connections with their colleagues, managers, and senior leaders, whatever their background or location.
➡️ Make your employees feel at home from day 1 with Zavvy
A sense of belonging is fundamentally important for organizations. Both businesses and employees can reap the rewards of a sense of belonging, as it deeply connects to other factors that affect the employee experience, such as engagement, enablement, empowerment, DEI, and well-being.
But in the ever-evolving and complex arena of workplace dynamics, it may seem a daunting task to address the challenge of creating and nurturing a sense of belonging at work.
Fortunately, however, there are versatile, practical ways to do it. And significantly, effective tools and programs, such as those offered by Zavvy, can help any organization build success through its culture of belonging.