Looking back on my career to date, I can reflect that one of the reasons for my regular movement has been due to a lack of deep connection with some of the organisations for which I have worked, and my itching to find somewhere ‘I belonged’.
Yes, I have made excellent friends, and worked on many rewarding projects along the way, but sometimes there was a lack of connection with the employer or environment. After some time, I would typically leave to find somewhere with more personal and professional fulfilment.
My experience is common, and it is on the rise.
Research into ‘the great resignation’ has found that in 2021, 55% of UK businesses experienced higher turnover than they did in 2020 (Personnel Today, 2022). But many HR professionals have observed that creating a stronger sense of belonging in the workplace is helping to retain valuable staff.
Belonging relates to an emerging concept in the workplace that builds on our understanding of inclusion. It is a feeling that comes from within, but can be strongly influenced by the company values, culture, systems and leadership style.
Definition of a sense of belonging
“How an employee shows up and feels comfortable being themselves—and how they contribute to an organisations’ common goals.” (Deloitte, 2021)
What does belonging mean in a workplace context?
The starting point is the acknowledgement that different people experience their place of work in different ways.
We all want to belong, it’s something that is inherently natural and human. It is a feeling that comes from within, and is rooted in being made to feel welcome, understood, valued for their uniqueness, and considered.
For example, when I was part of a sports team of 15 players at university, during training we would work on communication, ball skills and tactics. The coach made sure everyone had 100% clarity on each other’s role within the team and how they interrelated. My role was to tackle and prevent the opposition from breaking through our defensive line. We supported each other before, during and after matches, celebrated successes, debriefed about losses and played to everyone’s strengths and weaknesses despite their position.
As a newcomer to the game, I immediately felt I belonged and was valued, the coach clearly knew that was the only way to get the best performance out of me. I was ‘stitched in’ to the team completely and didn’t want to leave after the three years tenure, such was the sense of belonging and commitment to the team’s performance and trusting relationships I had built.
I believe we can replicate this sense of togetherness in the workplace, benefiting all people despite their level of experience, or background to improve happiness and performance.
Why focus our energy on improving the sense of belonging?
There are many reasons why organisations should shift their focus onto belonging and talk in these terms when exploring employee engagement and performance management.
For instance, feelings of belonging are linked to a 56% increase in workplace performance, and improves retention by 50%, as well as reducing sickness absence by 76% (Harvard Business Review, 2019).
Many traditional EDI initiatives implemented over the years are struggling to make any impact. For instance, we have seen decades of efforts contrasted with slow progress in female representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths sectors (The Engineer, 2021),
Could belonging be the key to stop the revolving door of talent loss in “non traditional” sectors, could trying something new speed up progress?
Tips to generate s greater sense of belonging
1. Get to know your staff, encourage an environment which is flexible and appeals to people from a range of backgrounds and values the different strengths and perspectives they bring to the team. We are living in a time where our workplaces involve people from 5 different generations, we must do better to appeal to a range of audiences.
2. It’s important to demystify belonging and normalise it so that people understand that wanting to belong at work is natural, and there are strategies to promote it by colleagues and managers demonstrating behaviours that actively generate a sense of belonging.
3. Understand your workforce data – it is important to look at the trends in recruitment, selection, progression and retention within your workplace to establish any trends which may link to the lack of belonging for certain groups.
4. Support the benefits of staff networks and interest groups so that people can find others to connect with, provide spaces to collaborate and have fun.
Belonging starts with self (internalised). We can use regular microaffirmations to bring about increased belonging in people and create an environment of welcoming everyone’s opinions and setting a standard of intentional inclusion in meetings, tackling a sense of exclusion or isolation.
Belonging extends to how we interact in teams (interpersonal), this includes our values and how we work with others, how proactive we are about understanding and including other points of view.
It ends with systems (structural). We need to ask ourselves how inclusive our industries and sectors are in relation to their workplace policies procedures and practices for hiring, development and retention.
There is a wealth of potential to transform culture, productivity, and employee retention by focusing on belonging, but we must rebuild inclusive systems and practices where everyone can belong and thrive.