Belonging — along with community, innovation, and inclusion — are frequently used as lofty corporate buzzwords but uncommonly practiced values. Belonging is defined by researchers Bonnie M. Haggerty and Kathleen Patusky as the dual experience of being seen, valued, needed, and accepted as you are (valued involvement) and identification with the needs and characteristics of the group or system. Whether that be skills, values, or demographics (fit), it is no wonder the buzz around belonging has increased: the effect of belonging – and its absence – on business outcomes is staggering.
We are living a loneliness epidemic which has profound implications for work. Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index reports that workers lacking quality relationships with colleagues are 22.8% more likely to feel lonely, an outcome of a lack of belonging. Lonely workers think about quitting their jobs twice as often as non-lonely workers. In fact, 50% of the 61% of all workers feel the need to downplay aspects of their identity at work report decreased commitment to their organization. A lack of belonging contributes towards the one trillion annual cost of voluntary turnover to American companies in a big way.
In 2020, belonging at work took on even greater meaning with the mass shift to remote work due to COVID-19, plus the elevated national conversation about systemic racism and marginalization. This energy inspired Sharehold to undertake new design research, including surveys, a literature review, diary studies and extensive interviews, to address the question, “How does uncertainty impact one’s sense of belonging at work?”
It’s not about increasing belonging at work in a time of uncertainty; it’s about increasing belonging at work generally.
In our survey to measure the change in a sense of belonging after the shift to remote work in response to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, we found a reported total decrease in belonging of five percentage points. Remote work itself isn’t as significant a factor in belonging at work as we had expected.
Rather, the ways in which some employees do not – and never did – belong were exacerbated and made more visible during this time period. Interviewees reported that the increased conversation about systemic racism at work highlighted the ways in which colleagues with marginalized identities, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), made them more aware of microaggressions at work and biased company policies. Further, windows into colleagues’ lives via Zoom forced us to see our colleagues as the full humans they always were and that work previously denied: people who burp babies during meetings, take walks around the block for our mental health, and struggle to perform under extreme and prolonged stress.
During this period of uncertainty, our existing experiences of belonging magnified and became much more visible to us all. These experiences are not currently, and never were, satisfactory.
More intense experiences of belonging created the opportunity to get more specific about what belonging means – and how it can be measured and actioned at work.
The context and definitions of belonging that our research participants described revealed four interdependent experiences of belonging at work, each of which correlate with specific areas of employer action, including:
- Foundational Belonging is the recognition that each of us has an undeniable value by the mere fact of being human. This is correlated with treating all employees with basic respect, our expectations of “professionalism”, and support and recognition of the biological, spiritual, mental and emotional needs beyond our job and that affect our job performance.
- Self Belonging is the experience of belonging to and feeling connected to ourselves. This is correlated with ensuring employees know the value of their work and how it supports team goals, as well as having the time off to support self belonging beyond work.
- Group Belonging is what we typically talk about when we talk about belonging at work — the experience of feeling valued involvement and fit within the team. This is correlated with recognition and validation for one’s contributions, a clear pathway to team engagement, participation, and progression, and psychological safety.
- Societal Belonging is the experience of the greater world affirming our value and acceptance. At work, this means that our sense of belonging “in the office” is influenced by current events and the greater business and social context of our country and the world. This is correlated with company advocacy and a recognition of and dialogue about current events, public policy, equity and justice, and power.
With more discrete definitions, belonging is easier to evaluate and action towards better outcomes. In our initial belonging self-assessments, Sharehold has seen that visualizing the interrelationship of each type of belonging across teams increases awareness, understanding, and empathy for differing experiences of belonging. Further, it sparks conversations of how individual team members, managers, and the company at large might take action on deepening belonging, whether its starting with diversity, equity, and inclusion, expanding efforts for work-life balance, or an initiative more specific to the company’s unique circumstance.
What this time of uncertainty has revealed is that it is our collective responsibility — and especially that of employers — to design environments of belonging. The new visibility of our belonging shortcomings illuminate a roadmap and the critical thought necessary to move belonging from a corporate ideal into an embodied action and practice.
Get the full insights report and workbook: Redesigning Belonging: How Uncertainty Magnifies Belonging at Work.
Sarah Judd Welch is the Principal and CEO of Sharehold, an innovation consultancy that fosters and designs belonging within teams and communities.