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A sense of belonging when we’re apart

Cate Murden, Founder and coach - PUSH
Diversity and Inclusion are often left out of staffing conversations and many struggle to recognise that it is the glue that holds the pieces together. I’ve spent many years advocating for it and defend that an environment that fails to perpetuates a sense of belonging, even the most effective recruiting strategy for diversity and inclusion will be rendered futile.

The numbers don’t lie and this article on Harvard Business Review outlines that high belonging is linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, 75% reduction in sick days and 50% drop in turnover risk. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than £47M.

However, there’s still some skepticism which can be overturned if managers and senior team members have the support they need to create a more inclusive environment, as detailed by Culture Amp and Paradigm who measured employee experience across seven factors of diversity, belonging, and inclusion. Unsurprisingly, they found that belonging is most strongly and consistently correlated with employee engagement.

Over the years, I’ve been talking about creating cultures that enable peak performance which this really boils down to creating cultures of belonging. A culture where marginalized, underrepresented or excluded people feel that they have a purpose, that they can contribute and affect change, that they matter.

Up until March, when measures to stop the outbreak of Covid19 sent us all home, we took something for granted – that we’d be together, working side by side with our peers, basing the foundations of our work on in-person interaction, and that our survival wouldn’t rest on isolation, which really is the antithesis of belonging. So, the question quickly became: How can businesses make colleagues feel they belong, when we are unavoidably made to work apart?

Sure, we can answer that question but first, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons people typically feel like they don’t belong in the workplace. And no point blaming it all on Covid19, as feelings of isolation, separation and disconnect existed long before that. So, here’s why:

Reason 1: An absence of shared characteristics
(Feeling different from colleagues, which can arise through differences in ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or simply social or professional background.)

Adah Parris (Futurist & Ted 2019 Emerging Innovator) addressed this at PUSH’s recent WHAT NOW? Event. She reminded us that, at a microscopic level, we as humans would literally not exist without diversity, yet despite this, millions of people feel that they cannot be themselves at work. If we want to create mentally healthy workplaces and a culture of belonging, people need to feel safe to be their ‘whole self’ at wor
k. And this is no different in the new WFH scenario.

No one stands to gain if people morph into cookie-cutter employees before the dailt Zoom call, in the same way we don’t want them leaving their authentic selves at the turnstile. So how can you nurture this individuality in every setting? Here’s how:

Share your stories:
Practically, this means creating spaces and time for people to share their experiences, realities and stories. Anecdotes – especially from more senior-level people – about their own struggle to fit in, or in bringing their authentic selves to work, can be a powerful tool that fosters and nurtures a sense of belonging within an entire workforce. This is just as powerful on Zoom as it is in real life.

Show Support:
Demonstrate support for others’ ideas and work. Go out of your way to ensure that every voice is heard and, more to the point, feels safe to be heard. Every idea needs acknowledgement and respect to demonstrate its validity.

Introduce a ‘TOOT YOUR HORN’ initiative. Shout out the wins, no matter how small. Encourage your team to share both their own and each other’s success! This can be done via slack, email, WhatsApp, carrier pigeon, or if you prefer – Zoom!

Speak up against injustice:
Beware the murkier side of belonging: we club together for collaboration – but also for conflict.
So encourage people to speak up when they see injustice against themselves or others. This starts with clarity of what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to behaviours and for leadership to exemplify this at all times. Encouraging non-optical allyship is absolutely paramount here.

Reason 2:  They think they don’t matter

There’s a famous story, that when President John F. Kennedy was visiting the NASA space center in 1962, he noticed a man carrying a broom. Kennedy decided to introduce himself to the employee and asked what his job was. The employee, a janitor, responded, ‘Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’

It’s a heartwarming account, and the janitor’s feeling of purpose, value and importance can be boiled down to one thing: he feels like he MATTERS.


Creating a culture where every single one of us matters is crucial for developing individual, team and organisational performance. It’s vital that we demonstrate how much each of us matter, particularly at a time when we’re lacking face-to-face contact. And the best way to do this is to communicate better. Here’s how:

Acknowledge everyone:
When you acknowledge someone, you recognise their value and importance. This is as simple as starting your next meeting saying good morning to everyone on the zoom call or asking them what emotion they’re bringing onto the call. Small ways that you can acknowledge people even when you’re not together, go a long way.

Nurture the new recruits:
Millions of people have been onboarded remotely this year, in fact most are yet to meet their colleagues in real life. This has wider ramifications than missing out on an initiation pint at the pub or shadowing a senior colleague. This is missing out on the hundreds of interactions that happen in between, those off-the-cuff conversations, that for many are vital in building that sense of belonging.

So, encourage new recruits to take part in virtual daily hangouts! They can chat about how their day has been, and what they might be doing when not at work. This way, strong team relationships are formed, even remotely. They will feel part of something, they will feel that they matter.

Tell people that you ‘see’ them and start sentences with:
– I hear you
– I understand you
– I appreciate you


Finally, the ultimate present you can give another is your PRESENCE:
How many times have you been in a conversation with someone, and you know their mind is in another place? How many times have you felt ‘un-noticed’ when someone was looking right at you? This is not exclusive to face to face and also happens virtually.  You don’t have to be available for everyone all the time, but when you have someone’s time and attention; really make that person the center of your attention and experience.
                                                                                          
This isn’t rocket science. All it takes is commitment to the journey, because this is a continually evolving and ongoing process. There isn’t a company out there that can say they’ve nailed this down, and the current working environment will make it easier to miss, or ignore the signs that someone’s feeling disconnected or abandoned. So, we all have the responsibility to show up every single day, no matter how hard or messy it gets along the way.

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