Humans are inherently social. So much so that longitudinal studies have shown that happiness is largely determined by the quality of our relationships. From the playground to the office, people seek to fit in and belong.
Much has been written about how diversity and inclusion at the workplace drive productivity, efficiency, and creativity. More recently, studies have also shown that engendering a sense of belonging amongst employees directly translates to them feeling more invested in their jobs, which reduces turnover and sick days and increases overall performance. For large companies, this translates to millions in annual savings.
Unsurprisingly, companies are increasingly trying to make sense of corporate belonging. In February this year, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIBs) advocate Maya Toussaint shared with Microsoft key differences between the three concepts.
“Diversity is quite simply, representation,” said Toussaint. This means having diverse ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations represented at workplaces. Inclusion then builds on diversity and focuses on granting equal access to development and career opportunities, and ensuring employees feel welcome and respected.
Toussaint also quoted DIBs expert Verna Myers who explained that “diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance”.
A company that is diverse and inclusive then helps foster a sense of belonging. “It’s a feeling of being able to be my true self,” said Toussaint. “I was once told I shouldn’t laugh at work. I quit the following week. I clearly didn’t belong there.”
Toussaint now works at a company where she is told her laugh is missed when she is on sick leave, and where her ideas and expertise are constantly tapped on. She feels included, and also appreciated and celebrated for the skills and quirks she brings to the table.
While diversity is a fact and inclusion a behaviour, belonging is very much a feeling. Before COVID- 19 made working from home a global norm, a key feature of belonging was being able to feel and be your authentic self at the office.
But when home becomes office, does belonging become less salient? Do measures of isolation, exclusion, and alienation change when meetings (work and play) can only take place virtually? Back when belonging was tied to the physical space of the office, creating environments that cultivated a sense of belonging amongst employees was arguably more straightforward.
In 2019, entrepreneur and author Rebekah Bastian opined that company norms such as “appearances and even the ways people have fun and unwind” were crucial factors in fostering or inhibiting a sense of belonging amongst employees. It was as much about formal DIBs policies as it was about everyday interactions that enabled one to “develop a deeper connection with others by sharing (their) authentic self and receiving acceptance in return”.
Before the new normal, weekdays consisted of lunches with colleagues, bonding over shared experiences during idle pockets of time in the pantry, and going for the occasional drink together. These were the human spaces where belonging (or a lack of) was most felt. But what happens when these spaces are erased?
Companies and employees that once enjoyed diversity, inclusion and belonging will now have to grapple with translating this culture online. Employers need to be aware of how new employees might feel alienated in their own homes during Google Hangouts with colleagues they have never met.
Or how things might now get awkward when existing employees try to get their usual lunch buddies together over Zoom (when everyone’s families are there with them in the flesh).
Some employees might struggle with figuring out the culture of the places they will be spending the next few years at. While the context of corporate belonging has changed, the right culture remains the most important factor in cultivating a sense of belonging.
At home, idle time during work hours can now be spent doing a hundred other things (read: nap, play mobile games, tend to children, chores, the list goes on). Employees might not feel left out when everyone is forced to stay home, but they might feel increasingly disconnected, which might impact personal job investment and performance. How then, can companies carve out the time and space for relationships and a sense of belonging to organically grow again?
Some companies are trying their darnedest. There are companies that organise team lunches by delivering restaurant takeaway to their employees’ homes and eating together via Zoom. There are some that host team gaming sessions on HouseParty.
Others hire yoga instructors to conduct group online workouts. Some companies even manage to bring employees from all over the world together via Zoom by sending lunch to employees in Singapore, wine to employees in Australia, and dinner to employees in the US.
Many companies are also extra committed to listening to their employees during this challenging time. They have company-wide addresses by upper management, one-on-one check-ins between managers and employees, and conduct candid AMAs (Ask Me Anything) where CEOs address questions on the ground.
These are all laudable attempts at creating opportunities for bonding online, which is the cornerstone of belonging. Yet, perhaps the biggest challenge facing any organisation is their own employees’ attitudes towards these initiatives.
In the comfort of homes, there are many things people could or would rather be doing. But if we are serious about belonging, we need to carve out the time and space to invest in the relationships at work, from home.
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