Creating Belongingness: Evolving the D&I Conversation
It was in my early teenage years that I first listened to Sting’s “Englishman in New York” and the lyrics chimed a sentiment that was all too familiar for me - the need to belong, to be accepted and to be valued in places that I visited, lived or called my own. For me, this was the need to fit into my own culture, be part of an insider group of kids at school or be able to relate to my cousins or friends in their pursuits in life. As the years went by, I realised that my life continued to echo the same sentiment as I started working and in true sense, I felt like a ‘legal alien’ in another place I called my own; my workplace. I felt deep down, I did not belong and fitting in was a flex.
What is Belonging?
Today, connotations to the word belonging come in different shapes and forms. While some may refer to it as ‘their tribe with the same vibe’, others may simply refer to it as ‘squad’ or ‘clique’. In other social settings, we may refer to it as ‘family’ and in most workplaces, we often hear the catchphrase ‘we are one family’. Despite these varied connotations, the bottom-line remains the same; belongingness refers to a simple idea that it is a state or feeling of relating to a particular group or unit. The human need for belonging comes from one of the most basic evolutionary development traits; we seek or gain acceptance, respect and value from others in our surroundings to form meaningful relationships with each other. Sometimes seeking or gaining acceptance, respect and value from others is easy while on many occasions, it is easier said than done.
Creating Belongingness: The Business Case
The reality is that we have all been in places where we felt we didn’t belong, but the situation becomes different when it’s your workplace. We spend most of our time either physically or virtually, against the backdrop of COVID-19, at work. In many cases, when employees feel they don’t belong in their workplace, their performance suffers, relationships both at home and the office become fractured, they become disengaged, face mental health issues and often leave the organisation having had a bad employee experience. In 2019, The Harvard Business Review reported that 40% of its research sample felt isolated and excluded at work and cited poor organisational commitment to overall employee experience as a factor. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Mercer reported that 36% respondents experienced social isolation and increased anxiety working remotely in the ASEAN region. In the same study, Mercer highlighted those employees today looked to their employers to look after their wellbeing mentally, physically, emotionally and financially throughout such tough times. Having frameworks and support systems for employees will increase feelings of belonging at work and ensure that employees feel valued, respected and included. As such, these efforts directly lead to positive business outcomes, better employee performance and an overall positive employee experience.
How Can We Create Belongingness?
A question that most senior management executives and HR professionals ask is ‘why is it hard to create belonging in the workplace even with the plethora of D&I initiatives in place?’. The answer is simple. As mentioned earlier, belongingness is a basic human trait that has evolved over time along with our social DNA. We have pattern mapped our individual sense of belonging to external stimuli such as family and friends, school or college, society and social experiences, identity or even cultural bindings that define our human experience. Consequently, when employees face challenges in finding common denominators with this set of stimuli at work, finding a sense of belongingness at work fails. However, the question of why programmatic efforts fails to solve this problem remains and the answer is yet again, very straightforward. Belongingness and inclusion are not programmes that can be delivered but rather the outcomes of action plans that must be fostered, nurtured and developed intentionally to create a sense of belonging for others. It’s not an overnight fix but rather the result of a journey that needs to be taken with management empowerment, appropriate relevant policies and listening to everyone across the board.
Here are some tips on how to create belongingness in the workplace
- Aim to create employee experience – Aiming to create employee experience versus employee engagement is a key aspect to creating belonging in the workplace. Employee experience is driven by a long-term focus on understanding how an organisation can create belonging and inclusion at each stage of the employee lifecycle. This translates to having equitable and purpose driven interventions that are sustainable, agile and impactful at each stage of the employee lifecycle.
- Check-in with your teams – A lot of managers tend to think checking-in with their team members is having them on speed dial to check on work progress. Checking-in is quite the opposite. It’s about creating meaningful relationships with each other, having genuine conversations around a person’s day or wellbeing or just about anything for them to feel heard and acknowledged.
- Embrace, celebrate and showcase self-identity – As our workplaces evolve with diverse talent, find ways to embrace, celebrate and showcase their self-identity. This may be about having welcome meals with new joiners and celebrating PRIDE or other diverse groups at work. Showcasing self-identity has to move from mere tokenism to showcasing true participation within the organisation valuing individuals for their true uniqueness.
- Enhancing the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) – All employees seek to get a good deal from their employer and recognising this only provides a cause for creating belonging. This could range from having equitable benefits plans, to meaningful work and career growth, to initiatives that boost wellbeing, to even simple things like welcome packs on their onboarding day. The bottom-line is to recognise and highlight the need for an employee’s presence for them understand the level of investment the organisation has for them.
- Listening to feedback – Actively seek to replace engagement surveys with experience surveys. As HR professionals, D&I professionals and senior leaders, nothing is more important in leadership than listening with empathy to feedback. Leaders must understand what the lapses are and where the organisation is failing to meet experience touchpoints. An organisation’s willingness to listen to their employees is often a testament to their D&I strategy and their commitment to making an equitable workplace for all.
- Create moments that matter – As Ken Blanchard says in his theories of Situational Leadership and customer service, we need to strive to create moments of truth and moments that matter. From celebrating birthdays to celebrating work wins to supporting in losses and failures, we should strive to create heartfelt moments and interactions that convey transparency, honesty, empathy and care to establish a net of psychological safety.
- Creating employee communities – Having Employee Support Groups (ESGs) and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) is a critical way to show employees that they will be supported within the organisation despite their identity or expression. More and more new joiners look for evidence of ESGs and ERGs on prospective employer’s websites and factor this in when making conscious efforts to join a team. This links closely with offering a competitive value proposition to employees.
The reality is that creating inclusion and subsequently belonging is not an overnight quick fix. It truly takes effort, meaningful interventions, listening to employees and acting on feedback to scratch the surface and peel this onion. The reality is that even with many D&I interventions in place, so many employees feel like ‘legal aliens’ at work; not valued, respected or belonged at work. Belongingness is the last stage in the evolution of inclusion and to have employees feeling true belonging at work is a sign of a mature and well evolved D&I strategy. At Community Business, our Consulting & Training team offers expertise and provides guidance, solutions and interventions to partner in your organisation’s D&I journey. Whichever stage of this evolution, we are ready to partner with your teams to craft people-centric solutions that create belongingness across the board. If you would like to discuss any of this with us in more detail, please message us at firstname.lastname@example.org.