Fostering a culture of belonging and engagement in a hybrid environment

As we transition into our new-normal, hybrid environment, maintaining a sense of belonging and engagement is going to become a key priority for HR departments.

We know that engagement is vital to individual, team and organisational performance. Engaged employees go the extra mile, they push, stretch, and challenge themselves, seek ways to add value and take personal ownership for the impact of their work. Engaged employees and teams are our high performers.

Some of the critical building blocks to engagement however are under threat from our increasingly virtual, and hybrid world of work.

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This environment is undermining our sense of belonging, of being connected to our colleagues and our institutions, and our ability to feel we are contributing something valuable and meaningful to our places of work. And when we feel that we do not belong, that we are not able to contribute, we disengage.

The hybrid environment, with some working from home and some in the office is likely to exacerbate this further, contributing to an ‘us and them’ culture as we revert to old habits, assumptions, and attitudes about the value of working from home. This in turn will impact trust between colleagues, and perhaps between leader and employee and perceptions of equity and valued contribution. 

The contribution of those at home may indeed be lessened if they are overlooked when leaders reach out for input on key decisions and turn only to those they can physically connect with in their offices
and corridors.

To maintain a sense of belonging and engagement in a hybrid setting HR leaders need to focus on four key areas:


Support the development of relationships

Encourage the development of empathetic and genuine relationships in the team. Look out for those who have strong inter-personal skills when recruiting and prioritise this in development programmes.

Support employees in establishing quality relationships through informal ‘off-task’ virtual activities or social events, and ensuring new joiners are allocated a mentor and properly socialised into the organisation. 


Ensure your people feel valued

Make sure leaders clarify expectations and requirements of their staff’s jobs and allow a level of autonomy over their role. Our research showed that if people feel they lack control and are unable to do anything to address their sense of not belonging, they are more likely to withdraw or disengage than seek ways to connect or add value. Autonomy means they can craft their roles to play to their strengths and add maximum value.


Focus on growth and development

As we navigate our way through this new world of work, development loses its priority and impacts our team’s ability to grow and add value. And if we do not feel we are adding value, we will not feel we belong. Even in these ambiguous times therefore, it is important that we prioritise development, supporting your people’s ability to learn new skills, maximise their strengths, develop confidence and competence, and feel they are a valuable contribution to the business.


Foster a culture of psychological safety

A psychologically safe culture allows employees to feel safe to contribute, helping them feel included and valuable, encouraging them to speak out and get support if they feel excluded as well as be more able to be themselves in the workplace.

Ensuring your leaders support this by developing the mindset and behaviours of inclusive leaders, by for example inviting and acting upon ideas and contributions from their teams (both at home and in the office), develop a mindset of openness, curiosity and inclusivity to different experiences and demographics, and are humble about their own insecurities and where they need help.

This form of fallible leadership not only role models that it is okay to not know all the answers, thus encouraging teams to ask for help, but it also creates the space into which team members can step to fill the gaps in their leader’s knowledge, supporting their sense of adding value.

By ensuring our people can maintain those relationships critical to their sense of belonging and can work in a culture where they feel trusted, valued, and accepted, will help to maintain their sense of belonging and engagement in our new world of work.


Lee Waller is an author and professor at Hult International Business School (Ashridge)


The full piece of the above appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.