What Does It Mean to Create a Culture of Belonging?

While most workplaces might claim they have a culture of belonging, what does this term mean in practice? All companies hope their employees are happy and satisfied when they clock in each day, but how do employees really feel? As humans, we wish for a sense of belonging. We want to be accepted by our communities, families, and even the places we work each day. 

Though a longing to belong is hardwired into human DNA, many workplaces still fall short. In fact, a reported 40% of people feel isolated at work. Though businesses spend billions each year on diversity and inclusion training, the mark continues to be missed. Feeling left out is a sting everyone can relate to at some point. With this in mind, what does a culture of belonging really mean? Better yet, how can companies continue to do better?

There’s no denying that humans are social creatures. We can bond with strangers in the checkout line of the grocery store, yet it’s still a challenge to bond with everyone at work. That being said, in workplaces where people do feel like they belong, business performance improves. Companies that report high feelings of belonging boast a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% drop in turnover risk. In other words, belonging is good for business. In this guide, we’ll explore what it means to create a culture of belonging. 

The Definition of Belonging

First, what is belonging? What does it mean within the workplace? Belonging is the feeling of being valued within a community. There is a sense of purpose to belonging. You trust that your role is important, and you’re the best one for the task. If you were to leave this company, your loss would be missed. Belonging takes many forms, but it stems from a need to feel included. 

Belonging is a huge part of the human experience. From sports teams to church groups, belonging makes all the difference in our outlook. It also impacts the workplace. Organizational culture directly ties with employees’ feelings of belonging. When workers feel they belong at work, they perform better. 

It’s estimated that the job performance boost from employees feeling a sense of belonging results in a gain of $52 million per year for every 10,000 employees. People are at the center of every company. Making sure those people feel valued as individuals within a cohesive community is key to success at every level. 

Why Do Employees Feel Excluded at Work?

With employees working towards similar goals, what’s keeping them feeling left out? While company culture is supposed to unite employees around similar values, goals, and ethos, some employees can still feel a sense of separation. There are a lot of potential reasons for this:

  • Representation: It’s also important to note many employees feel they aren’t accepted because of their ethnic background, culture, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Though this is usually done unintentionally, it just shows the value of diversity within a company’s culture. 
  • Leadership: Only 31% of employees believe they have inclusive leadership at their organization. This means they don’t feel represented or valued. 
  • Recognition: Lastly, some employees feel excluded simply because they’ve never been recognized for the hard work they do. A reported 40% of employed Americans would put energy into their work if they were recognized more often or reliably. 

As you can see, a culture of belonging doesn’t happen on its own. It takes proactive leadership to fight all of these things above that lead to feelings of exclusion. Because these causes are often subtle, it might not be possible to notice them until the damage has been done. Luckily, a few adjustments in your workplace culture can turn things around. 

6 Steps to Build a Culture of Belonging

With 1 out of 4 employees expressing that they don’t fit in within their organization, it’s time for a change. As mentioned previously, company culture is proactive, not reactive. It’s not enough to respond to the symptoms of feeling left out. It’s important to address these problems before they happen. Here are 6 steps to build a culture of belonging for your organization. 

1. Create positive feedback loops. 

First, create a system for rewarding positive feedback. In the workplace, leadership often focuses on what goes wrong. While there is a time and pace for constructive criticism, there is even more of a place for gratitude. When employees feel appreciated and valued, they also feel like their work matters. 

When leadership takes the time to acknowledge current employees, they build their confidence. Make it a vital part of your culture to shout out great work. Encourage employees to speak up about their coworkers’ great work as well, creating an ongoing positive feedback loop. Everyone deserves to feel valued for their contribution. For example, team members can use Slack to shout out great work from other coworkers or welcome new hires. When everyone joins together to support others, there’s a culture of appreciation. 

2. Measure employee happiness. 

Next, check in with your current employees about happiness and belonging. It’s not enough to make assumptions, you need to confirm these metrics yourself. How do you measure employee happiness and sense of belonging? The best way is also the simplest: ask them. 

Create employee engagement surveys to track your success on a regular, ongoing basis. Keep accurate track of different happiness levels amongst demographics like age, race, gender, orientation, and even income levels. This shows your employee’s collective happiness, but it also shows trends in different cultural groups. 

3. Train management in connection. 

Most exclusion doesn’t happen on purpose. It’s not usually intentional, and this is why it can be so hard to spot. To combat this, train management and leadership in how to foster real connections. Better yet, give them the tools they need to recognize and help people who are currently struggling. 

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaders speaking up about mental health and sharing their own stories. Other times they need to adjust teams and hierarchies to ensure everyone is intentionally included. There needs to be a top-down approach from management. 

4. Integrate new employees through onboarding.

Integrating new employees into a team is difficult, especially if that team is already close-knit. Onboarding plays an important role in this process. While most employers have a process for introducing new employees, this usually falls flat. Walking new hires through the office and throwing new names at them doesn’t usually result in any meaningful interactions. 

Instead, consider other ways to build real connections through the onboarding process. Assigning a mentor or buddy is a great option, but you could also rotate your new hires through different teams. By encouraging collaboration from the earliest stages of the hiring process, it’s likely that these new employees will hit the ground running. 

5. Include remote workers. 

With a rise in remote workers, it’s common for these feelings of belonging to not translate online. Creating an inclusive workspace shouldn’t end at the office. Though the non-traditional workforce is growing, this is just an opportunity to encourage belonging in a new way. 

To begin, consider how you currently include contractors, remote workers, and flexi-timers within your workplace structure. It’s common for them to call into meetings and then disappear into their own corners of cyberspace. This leads to feelings of isolation and disconnection. Combat this by including them in the same ways you include your in-person workforce. You might suggest they lead a meeting, participate in a collaborative event, or ask for regular feedback.

6. Break down barriers between teams. 

Lastly, it’s normal for teams that work on the same projects to feel a greater sense of togetherness. For example, the crew from marketing might stick together during company events rather than mingle with people from other departments. It’s in human nature to feel closer to those you work with regularly. Instead of fighting this, create new initiatives around collaborative working. 

When these barriers between groups come down organically, people feel more open to talking to those outside of their smaller groups. This also leads to a positive impact on work performance since all departments have a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives and responsibilities. In other words, it’s broadens appreciation and understanding. 

While social events can be a great place to encourage everyone to interact, don’t rely on these alone. Create work situations where collaborations happen often, whether this includes new projects, open office plans, or switching teams regularly. Companies that promote collaborative working aren’t just easier to work for, they’re also more productive. Statistics reveal they’re 5x more likely to be high-performing than non-collaborative teams. It’s time to break down silos between departments. 

Combat Loneliness in Your Workplace

Ultimately, loneliness isn’t as rare as it should be in the workplace. As more companies shift to online or hybrid work, these numbers are only expected to grow. Now is the time to check how your employees really feel about their sense of belonging. While loneliness rarely happens out of malice, it truly adds up over time. 

Building a culture of belonging starts from the top down. When leadership is open about creating a sense of community, employees have a better experience every day. While this takes time and proactive effort, it’s one of the best investments a company can make. 

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