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When employees feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, they’re free to be their authentic, true selves, which makes it easier to show up, engage with others, create solutions and perform well. People who don’t feel workplace belonging experience anxiety, (dis)stress and mistrust that ultimately hampers their performance and creativity. That’s why entrepreneurs and leaders should design organizational policies and practices to encourage it.
Well-known, but nonetheless important, examples include knowing a team member’s name, welcoming them into the company through appropriate onboarding procedures and traditions, and regularly checking in to see how things are going through staff meetings, one-on-one huddles and feedback-based performance evaluations.
In this article, I draw upon an impressive array of data from our recent studies with corporate, non-profit and legal consulting clients to put forth fresh ideas for boosting workplace belonging. Fresh ideas lead to specific solutions and useful examples from companies witnessing solid results.
It’s no secret that workplace belonging is an essential component of employee engagement. When employees feel like they belong, it results in positive work-life balance, better relationships, low(er) stress levels, greater productivity, low staff turnover, higher job satisfaction ratings and better performance metrics.
For example, in one study, high sense of belonging among employees was strongly linked with a 56% increase in job performance, 50% decrease in risk of leaving and 75% reduction in sick days. For a company of 10,000 people, this could mean annual savings of more than $52 million. Figure 1 presents a summary.
The benefits of workplace belonging are indisputable. But how can entrepreneurs and leaders foster a sense of belonging within their organization? Belonging must be more than a buzzword. It refers to a feeling, a perception or an emotional connection that makes people feel accepted, respected, safe, secure, valued and understood at work, just as they are. One way to do this is by listening to and sharing team members’ stories about who they are, what they value, where they are from and what they love to do, both inside and outside of work. This is a great opportunity for humanizing the workplace — showing that the organization cares about its people and their well-being.
Another way to promote workplace belonging is to provide meaningful opportunities for connection, collaboration and social interaction amongst your team members. These vary in form and fashion, but our work with dozens of companies shows several fresh approaches to book clubs, employee resource groups (ERGs) and other affinity groups. Business leaders can also encourage employees to interact and share their fresh ideas and perspectives through staff pulse polls, feedback channels or team meetings by providing special breakout rooms or skipping-level meetings.
To build a culture of belonging, managers must strive to make all employees — whether in-person, remote or hybrid — feel like they belong by caring for their colleagues, advocating for each person’s needs, making or holding space for all voices to be heard and investing in their professional success. Additionally, leaders should be mindful of the impact of isolation in the workplace and take measures to prevent it, such as implementing formal staff mentoring programs or planning regular check-ins with individual staff members and teams. This will ensure that all employees have the resources they need to do their jobs well, thrive professionally and feel like they belong in their organization.
Business owners and leaders should also foster a culture of trust by encouraging honest dialogue, promoting anti-racist and non-judgmental practices, praising vulnerability and being mindful of power dynamics, especially in difficult situations.
A good place to start is fostering employee advisory groups, championing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) promising practices and ensuring that everyone has a safe, brave space to share their doubts, concerns, complaints and fears through electronic channels, climate surveys, feedback loops and one-on-one meetings with mentors, liaisons or managers.
Remember, the evidence is clear. A strong sense of belonging can bolster an organization’s bottom line, with research showing that it leads to a 56% increase in performance, a 50% decrease in turnover risk and a 75% reduction in sick days. It can also lead to a 167% increase in employer net promoter score, two times more employee raises and 18 times more employee promotions — the latter being person-level gains associated with performance metrics in studies.
Belonging is an essential building block of a successful workplace and an essential element of entrepreneurial success. While some companies overemphasize profits and gains — though dollars make sense in business (and cents make dollars) — belonging calls much-needed attention to the important role that emotions, feelings and perceptions play in business. How people feel can make or break a business; unlike widgets and contracts, feelings can’t be forced, fabricated, easily fixed or forgotten.
Our work with leading companies reveals several useful examples — what I refer to as promising practices — from businesses seeing solid results after prioritizing such feelings.
As a leader, you can take several actions to promote belonging in the workplace. For example, one Chicago-based tech firm invites staff to share their personal stories in team meetings, on social media and through the company’s podcast. This is an opportunity for everyone to get to know one another better, which contributes to a sense of community. It’s also a great way to discover commonalities and connections across departments, divisions and teams.
In addition, if business leaders encourage employees to express their opinions at work, they will feel like their ideas are valued and respected. A workplace that prioritizes belonging is one where all voices can be heard, celebrated and respected, regardless of the messenger, the message and its contents (within reasonable limits).
One Virginia-based non-profit takes several steps to create space for 360-feedback loops, including “Feedback Fridays,” where employees are rewarded (financially and otherwise) for identifying bottlenecks that threaten organizational excellence.
Remember, asking employees to air their perspectives is one step. An important action for leadership, however, is to listen to what their people need — and then act on it. When you do, don’t forget to circle back and share the solution while tracking its impact on fixing the problem.
It bears repeating: A sense of belonging is important for all employees, especially women and minorities who often feel isolated in male-dominated, predominantly white fields. By encouraging all employees to express their authentic selves, businesses can foster a more trusting and empowering culture that boosts employee performance, fuels innovation and hits the bottom line, all part of the connection equation.
To encourage a sense of belonging, leaders should consider the solutions and promising practices described in this article. Demonstrate that employees’ unique contributions are valued, and make an effort to understand their backgrounds. Promote a culture of belonging by creating opportunities for workers to collaborate with their peers in a supportive environment. All of this will help to build relationships and trust, which are crucial in fostering a sense of belonging. Indeed, work relationships move at the speed of trust.