Masterclass: how to create a sense of belonging at work

Having better quality conversations at work, not just more of them, will help employees to feel more included, explains Arran Heal

Research by behavioural scientists published in the Harvard Business Review claims 40 per cent of staff “feel isolated at work”. 

Feelings of being left out (“akin to a physical pain”) lead to serious consequences, says the report. Carrying out experiments among more than 2,000 employees, the BetterUp researchers found that a strong sense of belonging was linked to a 56 per cent increase in job performance and 75 per cent fewer days of absence. Staff were also 50 per cent less likely to leave their employer.

Meanwhile, employees are becoming less attached to physical workplaces, and in many ways, also to each other. The pandemic has accelerated changes already underway in terms of the use of video calls and digital interaction. Remote conversations have become the default option, while face-to-face meetings have become the exception. The consequence is that employees are less rooted in the codes and identities provided by a daily place of work and its routines. And all of this means that the usual to and fro of work conversations is different.

The authors emphasise the value of mentoring schemes in trying to cultivate that sense of belonging: having team leaders who can help their direct reports feel included and act as a “fair-minded ally” by sharing stories of how they’ve coped with difficult workplace dynamics. But how does mentoring work when there is a culture of reticence where staff aren’t used to speaking openly? 

Building a sense of belonging is founded on the quality (not just quantity) of workplace conversations. There needs to be more ‘conversational integrity’ among staff – skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views and different people.

Conversations only improve through being a regular – and also natural – part of working lives. Not when we are summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture.

Digital conversations can be superficial – instant but lacking the ingredients that encourage rapport, active listening and empathy, like body language. 

Common sense says that levels of engagement and motivation are going to be undermined without the essential feeling of ‘belonging’ within a workplace. Encouraging that feeling doesn’t need to involve grand strategic change, but it does need to mean a ‘clear air’ culture of conversations.

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP