Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Belonging is a fundamental human need: Why it’s lacking at work & how to enhance it

By Genevieve Macfarlane Smith

By Genevieve Smith & Jasmine Sanders

Today we are in a belonging crisis. This is reflected in steep mental health declines since the start of the pandemic. In 2019, the C.D.C. estimated that 15.8% of American adults took prescription pills for mental health. Recent research from the NY Times finds today that number is nearly a quarter. The pandemic’s mental health effects are continuing to spiral against a backdrop of isolation, disconnection, uncertainty, restriction and grief. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%. While not the whole story for mental health declines, lack of belonging plays an important role.

Humans are psychologically wired to need to belong. It’s been key to our survival historically and an evolutionary advantage: having meaningful relationships and networks means others have your back, and can protect or support you when you most need. This means we actually crave a sense of meaningful connections with other people.

You belong

Core to belonging is connection with others, including feeling seen and heard. It’s also about being accepted, embraced, and valued as yourself. This includes feeling acknowledged and valued for who you are – whatever your identity, background, etc. The pandemic upended opportunities for connection through restrictions and isolation, while also spurring people to question who they are and what they want.

The belonging crisis is reverberating when it comes to work. Record numbers of people have been – and are continuing to – leave their jobs in recent months. One of the top reasons: lack of belonging at work. The grounds are shifting under our feet.

But instead of getting stuck in this as a time of crisis, what if we shifted our mindset to see this as an opportunity to reimagine how work works and how workplaces can help advance our core need of belonging?

As many organizations are considering whether and how to go back to in-person, remote, or hybrid work, we are at a pivot point. This is the time for leaders to reimagine everyday work in ways that can truly support employees to feel they belong.

In our hybrid and remote working lives, it’s especially important to proactively work towards advancing belonging. Digital work can hide the person behind the email, but remote work and belonging aren’t incompatible – they just take putting in the work while centering empathy and compassion.

We conducted a review of academic and practitioner literature coupled with 25 interviews with academics and business leaders, and two global employee focus groups. While previous research has laid the groundwork for defining organizational belonging, there has been little focus on the facilitators of belonging and strategies to enhance it. This sentiment was echoed in interviews with managers and business leaders. 56% of interviewees recognized the value in belonging in the workplace, but struggled to pinpoint concrete actions to cultivate and measure belonging within their teams, local offices, and broader organization. Without these clear strategies and metrics, many respondents felt belonging would be dismissed or simply be thrown in the “alphabet soup” of corporate acronyms like DEI.

Belonging at Work Framework
Belonging at Work Framework

This research focused on moving belonging away from being an elusive buzzword in the world of work. We created a first-of-its-kind framework (see visual) that breaks belonging at work down into five key elements and, most importantly, identifies five critical drivers to facilitate belonging in organizations. Furthermore, our research presents ​​evidence-based strategies to foster belonging in organizations, as well as a host of metrics and tools to effectively measure belonging across one’s organization.

As illustrated in the framework, fostering belonging starts with five drivers: (1) Connectivity Opportunities, (2) Organizational Values and Principles, (3) Acknowledgement and Accountability Structures, (4) Work-Life Boundaries, and (5) Inclusive Work Environments. These five drivers lead to an environment where employees feel Affirmation, Pride, Empathy, and Trust. In turn, that helps to create a psychologically safe culture and opportunities for vulnerability. When these drivers and facilitators are in place, employees embody the elements of belonging. Finally, belonging has tangible benefits – like innovation and retention – for organizations.

Building from our framework and research, we developed a playbook for business leaders on Advancing Belonging in Organizations in partnership with Anaplan. Our playbook highlights 16 strategic actions to implement.

Get going with these quick wins:

  1. Start off meetings with time to connect or short personal prompts in the context of group meetings. Check out our Belonging Sparks (physical cards for in-person meetings or the online wheel for virtual meetings to preorder here) to access prompts.
  2. Set up virtual water cooler chats between people at different levels of the organization. Informal and formal opportunities to connect are important for belonging. Virtual water cooler chats between folks of different levels in the organization are found to be a great strategy to bridge new connections and networks in organizations.
  3. Encourage and model no emails or calls during non-work hours. This is key to help maintain healthy boundaries between work and personal life. Managers can also generally model and encourage healthy boundaries between work and personal life, recognizing that employees have different/additional responsibilities.
  4. Create standards of citizenship linking to organizational values. An example of a standard of citizenship: we celebrate and encourage dissension; however, these perspectives should not be harmful or offensive to others. Communicate standards of citizenship to all employees as employee expectations and responsibilities.
  5. For managers and leaders, incorporate the ability to support belonging as a key metric. Within 360 reviews, include questions and reflections on the ability to support belonging in teams (e.g., creating quality connections between employees, helping employees feel seen and heard, etc.).

But it’s not just about actions to implement. Fostering belonging starts with leadership mindset and behaviors. Leaders must work towards being inclusive and modeling vulnerability such as by sharing failures and lessons learned related to leadership and work practices. This can help create psychologically safe spaces that allow belonging to thrive.

It comes back to one question: How can you take action now so that people look back at this time period in 20 years and remember it not as the time not of the great resignation, but rather of the great re-imagination?

We can then remember 2022 as a turning point in the evolution of organizational culture, the time that leaders daringly reimagined work to ensure all employees feel that they belong to ultimately grow and thrive.