Amid the ‘Great Resignation’, creating a sense of belonging is more important than ever

With the job market in relative turmoil, businesses must concentrate on retaining their current staff, argues Lee Waller

Creating a sense of belonging at work could be key to helping employers retain valuable staff at a time when skills shortages are biting, and we are in the midst of the ‘Great Resignation'. 

2021 saw a huge rise in the number of workers leaving their jobs. In the UK, 19 million workers handed in their notice between March and July 2021, leaving more than 10 million job vacancies. These statistics are reflected across the globe, with 4 million US workers quitting in the month of July alone.

And this ‘Great Resignation’ shows no sign of abating any time soon. A survey of more than 6,000 employees by recruitment firm Randstad UK in September 2021 reported that 69 per cent of workers felt confident to move on to a new role in the coming months with nearly a quarter actively planning a move within three.

However, the response of many organisations to this employee crisis may bear little fruit. A recent survey of 160 HR leaders found that 52 per cent were intending to increase pay and benefits to attract and retain talent. But, when speaking to more than 1,000 employees who have moved jobs in the last months, only 29 per cent received a pay rise in their new role; 23 per cent were paid the same; and 13 per cent actually took a pay cut to move jobs. Indeed, when asked why they quit, only 19 per cent stated insufficient benefits

So what should companies be doing to stem the flood of leavers and encourage talent through their doors? As my research into belonging at work finds that the third most common response to a sense of not belonging is to quit, developing a culture of inclusion, belonging, value and acceptance might be an effective strategy.

A sense of belonging at work requires us to feel connected to our colleagues and our institutions, to feel that we are contributing something valuable and meaningful to our places of work, are trusted, respected and able to be ourselves. When we feel that we do not belong, however, we disengage, retreat, and ultimately, leave. 

While the experience of not belonging is sadly a prevalent one, it is likely becoming even more commonplace as our online environment disconnects us from our colleagues and diminishes our sense of community and connection to the broader organisation. The future hybrid way of working may indeed further exacerbate this through the ‘us and them’ culture that might develop between those in the office and those at home, as well as the impact the home-office divide might have on the ability for those working from home to contribute to key conversations and decisions, and therefore feel included and valued. 

With the growing number of job vacancies, moving companies may well become the change of choice for employees working in organisations that do not foster their sense of belonging. 

To maintain a sense of belonging leaders need to focus on four key areas:

Connection and community

Make time to check in with teams, understand how they are faring in this new normal. Help them feel listened to and cared about. Find ways to keep the community connected through virtual events and sharing team successes. Encourage teams to collaborate on projects to maintain relationships and emphasise their shared team purpose.

Inclusive leadership

Pay attention to the assumptions they might unconsciously make about who is adding value, who is contributing and the inadvertent signals they might be communicating about their own bias. Ensure they give as much attention and time to those who are working both virtually and in the office and invite all to contribute in a way that works for them. 

Foster psychological safety

Support employees’ ability to feel safe and confident to contribute by creating a climate of trust, respect, and compassion, where it is okay to speak up, to offer thoughts, or to ask for help. Role model this through humility – being humble and open about what we do not know, when we need help, when we have made mistakes.

Focus on development rather than reward

As we navigate our way through this new world of work, development loses its priority and impacts our teams’ ability to grow and add value. Move it back up the to-do list, supporting the ability of our staff to use their strengths and skills, offering feedback, coaching and development to enhance ability to add an even greater contribution to the team.

By focusing on creating a culture of belonging, where our teams feel trusted, valued, accepted, and engaged, organisations stand a better chance of both retaining their talent as well as becoming the organisation of choice for those on the move.

Lee Waller is professor of occupational psychology at Hult International Business School