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Creating a sense of belonging at work

Building a business culture that workers genuinely feel they belong within requires more than half-hearted initiatives, according to our HR Lunchtime Debate panel – belonging must be built in at ground level, as reported by Beau Jackson.

Between ethnic minorities and the majority, white collar workers and those who have had to stay on-site, people with and without dependents, furloughed and non-furloughed staff, the pandemic and the rise of many social movements risk dividing the workplace in 2021.

As such, many organisations are being challenged to really question how they create a culture in which everybody feels like they belong. In April we put this question to a panel of people professionals for our latest HR Lunchtime Debate.


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Speaking at the event Shubhang Davé, head of people science at Glint EMEA, defined belonging as one of the most powerful forces in the workplace. 

Referring to the adage that diversity is an invitation to the party, while inclusion is being asked to dance at it, he said: “Belonging, to me, is the idea of feeling like once invited to that party you belong there. You feel an ability to be yourself, and a deeper sense of connection with the people around you.”

Responding to a poll assessing feelings of belonging in the workplace, a significant majority (70%) of the webinar audience said they had occasionally felt that they did not belong, and 16% said they felt it often. Just 14% said it had never happened to them. The question was raised whether this proportion were members of the c-suite, highlighting a common issue where leaders are often more optimistic about their progress with D&I than employees at other rungs of the organisation.

Though this is sometimes the case, Angela O’Connor, CEO and founder of The HR Lounge, warned against making assumptions.

“The organisations that are really thinking this through understand that the most senior leadership require development as well, because often there’s an assumption that the leaders of the organisation have all the answers, and they don’t,” she said.

To achieve more homogeneity throughout the workforce Davé argued education is key. “The more that we help people understand what belonging looks like for them as executives, the more they come to realise how critical it is that everyone has a shot at feeling like they belong,” he said.

Overall, he added, HR has to keep belonging simple and authentic. 


How is belonging measured?

For Joanne Conway, deputy head of diversity and inclusion at EY, simple and authentic belonging is created firstly through ensuring employees understand what it means, then measuring aspects of their work which make them feel valued.

Making positive contributions to a team is one way Conway said value is driven. Using management information (MI) around inclusion, EY measures how people get assigned projects. It is able to look at the data through a gender or ethnicity lens to see if there are any gaps in who is gaining opportunities and who is not.

“We make sure that we’re working with our people so that they understand their day-to-day actions really impact an individual sense of belonging,” she said.

Before collecting data, it is also critical people teams understand the ‘why’ according to O’Connor.

“Before embarking on anything, what we’re trying to solve here is to understand what the problem is,” she said, “If people just introduce another initiative, it’s such a waste of time, energy and money and disappointing for everyone.”

Measuring belonging has to be continuous, Conway added. Dawn Morton-Young, founder of MLHR, agreed, arguing that if it isn’t continuous, organisations risk putting D&I on the backburner.

“For too long we’ve looked at diversity as an add-on,” she said. 

“It’s about the results of employee engagement and feeling valued, feeling supported, respected, loving what you do and what your company is about.”

Despite an engagement strategy being necessary to D&I, the webinar audience was split over confidence in their programmes to deliver on D&I objectives.

Just 22% of attendees had full confidence in their engagement programmes’ abilities to deliver on D&I principles, 39% said they often did though not all the time, and 40% said they either rarely felt confidence (29%) or had none at all (11%).

To boost engagement and belonging, Conway and Morton-Young said businesses must home in on core strategy rather than getting distracted by initiatives.

“You can do all of the initiatives in the world, and they will just fall by the wayside if you have not set your foundations straight at the beginning,” said Conway.

It is important, she added, to understand the objective of engagement programmes, how buy-in is attained and how D&I principles are communicated.


Overcoming othering

The antithesis to belonging is the othering of individuals based on their identity. HR must be aware of this risk too if they are to truly create a sense of belonging in the workplace. Sometimes, othering is the unintended outcome of raised awareness. With
the exposure of the Black Lives Matter movement, Morton-Young observed the othering of black people in the workplace.

“I do think that there is something about being that ‘other’. Even with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, black people were kind of under a microscope and we don’t necessarily want to be there,” she said.

Often, Morton-Young argued, organisations are not best equipped to cope with an unexpected political upheaval that affects their employees. “They’re a business, they’re there to set up in business,” she said.

“That’s why this conversation is key because organisations need to really take the concepts that we’re talking about here in terms of belonging and diversity and inclusion seriously and strategise around [them], recognise how [they] feed into their profit, their bottom line and their success.”

With othering it is also important to consider the line between employees simply ‘fitting in’ and truly belonging. Davé said: “It [fitting in] is necessary but not sufficient… Belonging requires a lot more than that.”

Creating a workplace in which people do not feel othered, or being other is celebrated in a positive way, he argued takes challenging the norm.

“[It requires a] move away from more conventional things like ‘culture fit’ to ‘culture-add’,” he said.

Rather than attaining a fit where employee values match those established by the organisation, culture-add considers what new, challenging perspectives people can bring that contribute positively to overall company objectives.

He added: “That’s much more than just giving them a seat at the table.” 


To hear more of this discussion, you can watch this webinar on demand here.

This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.

To download Glint's people-focussed approach to D&I and Manager's Conversation Guide click here.