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Life and Work: Building Belonging Across (Virtual) Borders

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are key elements for cultivating a welcoming workplace and organizational culture. To make these efforts successful, however, a fourth element — belonging — is at play.
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Belonging is the idea of being accepted and having our contributions heard and valued by those around us. It’s feeling like we matter. In our work environments, it’s a sense of security and support, which allows us to build meaningful connections with others. Belonging is also deeply tied to commitment, motivation, and pride for the work we do. 

Having a range of perspectives in the room leads to more innovative ideas and healthy discussion, which adds value to our companies. Hoi Ning Ngai, Ph.D., associate director for employer engagement and business advising at the Bates College Center for Purposeful Work, shared in an email interview that “we should be able to push back and challenge each other’s thoughts and ideas — being open doesn’t mean we have to wholeheartedly accept things we don’t agree with. Organizational cultures that openly and consistently recognize individuals and what they have to bring to the table, and support productive discourse and debate among those individuals, are ones that will more likely retain them over time. Ultimately, it’s in those environments that we simultaneously feel heard and experience growth.”

It’s no mystery that having a feeling of belonging leads to greater engagement and deeper relationships with others and increases retention in a community. It builds personal creativity and resilience. People can bring their full selves to work and not feel they need to act differently between their workplaces and at home. There is also an emotional and financial cost when belonging is not fostered. Research in the field of evolutionary psychology has documented how experiencing social exclusion has the same physiological and neural patterns as physical pain. Moreover, a 2019 study conducted by BetterUp Inc. found that “high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M” (Carr 2019).  

Remote work compounds the issue

Changing and ultimately improving work culture is a challenge on its own. Throw a virtual workplace environment into the mix, and building a sense of belonging becomes even more difficult. With safety measures in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations have deployed work-from-home policies for their employees. This can decrease the feeling of belonging as many employees are in a mandated state to work remotely or at a distance from peers, offices, and facilities. Many teams transitioned from seeing colleagues in-person daily to once or twice per week during video conference calls. For some, physically going to the workplace provided an outlet from home life, and engaging in assignments or tasks helped the time go by. For others, it was a social outlet to talk with teammates, collaborate with larger audiences, and connect with the world outside their personal spaces.


“Organizational cultures that openly and consistently recognize individuals and what they have to bring to the table, and support productive discourse and debate among those individuals, are ones that will more likely retain them over time. Ultimately, it’s in those environments that we simultaneously feel heard and experience growth.” 

– Hoi Ning Ngai, Ph.D., associate director for employer engagement and business advising, Bates College Center for Purposeful Work


Being away from your work colleagues can increase isolation that may be felt more immensely as we distance ourselves from other loved ones. Additionally, the lack of a consistent communication routine and the reality of increasing electronic communication can change the dynamic of your work team. Tacit knowledge might be trickier to share with the lack of informal hallway conversations; a strong internet connection or viable phone signal can be hard to come by; and screen fatigue may make us less likely to want to connect with others virtually. These factors compound to feeling disengaged from your team and a lack of camaraderie with your teammates. To help combat this and improve a sense of belonging, employers should include routine meetings and regularly communicate expectations and upcoming tasks. Dr. Ngai advises, “Whether in person or virtually, it’s important that teams meet on a regular basis — at least weekly, if not twice or three times — and that those meetings aren’t all task focused. While not every team needs to feel like or operate as a family (we all know that’s not everyone’s preference!), it’s helpful to acknowledge that we all have lives outside of work.”

This may also involve personal direct interaction with your team or colleagues. Lisa Patrick, a business development consultant and founder of The Thought Leadership Roundtable, recently reflected on how to navigate the remote environment and strongly advocates one-on-one interaction. Even a 10-minute conversation builds connection and trust; “creating a safe place for [people] to be authentically themselves is a key element of growth for everyone involved — and ultimately the business” (Patrick 2020).

It’s also important to dedicate time for relationship building between newer hires and veteran employees. This is especially helpful for those onboarding to feel welcome and included. Dr. Ngai adds, “It’s nice for different members of the team to check in on new colleagues now and again during the settling-in period so that those colleagues feel like they have a community of folks to reach out to with questions and concerns. It helps for them to know that everyone wants them to be successful. This is especially the case in virtual environments where feelings of isolation creep in more easily.”

Virtual activities foster a sense of belonging

Employers may want to evaluate their creativity or flexibility in which they connect safely with their workforce and should be accommodating to all employees, including those who may not be technologically savvy. Consider virtual coffee chats or socially distanced lunches, and use conversation starters such as a fun fact of the week or something new you did this week. This shows interest in your employees’ lives outside of work and helps you get to know them better beyond their work titles. Patrick also proposes being proactively inclusive and present in the moment, which aids in building respect, mental wellness, and stronger connections.

Try hosting virtual events, such as an at-home holiday decoration contest or trivia night, or promote outdoor, safely distanced physical wellness events such as virtual walk/run events. Another way to encourage a sense of belonging is to recognize your co-workers’ hard work through virtual awards or shout-outs. Sharing praise for a job well done during a meeting or email correspondence helps promote a successful work environment and motivates your workforce to keep charging away. And food for thought if you are constantly using technological software to communicate: Today’s tools — whether Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack, or another app — could provide a different means to connect with your workforce. Features such as breakout rooms, screen sharing, and raising-hand actions keep interactions active and more engaging.

To assist with engagement at home, be mindful of your at-home work environment, as this can impact productivity and affect your sense of belonging. Design a space that minimizes at-home distractions and puts you in the mindset to complete tasks. Establishing set hours can help you better organize your day and maintain that work/life balance. Communicating your evolving needs often and early with your team and supervisors creates a more transparent environment, which in turn can make people more likely to open up.

Our organizational culture and our sense of belonging will almost indefinitely be impacted through this global pandemic. Creating an environment where team members feel they belong doesn’t happen overnight; it requires intentionality, empathy, and sincerity. It takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to acknowledge diverse cultural needs, integrate solutions that build belonging, and advance our growing organizations’ missions in this virtual, and at times, isolating landscape.


Sources:

Carr, E.W. et al. (2019). The Value of Belonging at Work. Harvard Business Review (online). Available at: https://bit.ly/3gqgWMZ 

Patrick, L. (2020). 6 Ways Connections Create a Sense of Belonging Anywhere with Any Workplace. Entrepreneur (online). Available at: https://bit.ly/3guCHLM 

Authors

  • Life and Work: Building Belonging Across (Virtual) Borders

    Renee Oats, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board

    Renee Oats, Ph.D., is a mechanical engineer for the Department of the Navy and a most recent alum from Michigan Technological University. Dr. Oats has nearly a decade of SWE experience, including her current roles on the editorial board and the integrated marketing advisory board.

  • Life and Work: Building Belonging Across (Virtual) Borders

    Nicole Woon, SWE Editorial Board

    Nicole Woon is a SharePoint program manager at Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). An active SWE life member, she currently serves on the editorial board.

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