The Importance of Fostering a Culture of Belonging with a Remote or Hybrid Workforce
Two years ago, many of us – employers and employees alike – were preparing to return to an in-person work environment, but changing COVID conditions and shifting societal norms had different plans. Since August 2020, it’s become clear that for many companies, hybrid and remote work are here to stay. Estimates say that as much as 81% of the American workforce wants either a fully remote or a flexible hybrid work environment going forward, and a whopping 98% of all meetings include one remote participant. Employers are now faced with the challenge of building and maintaining a long-term culture of belonging that encompasses all employees regardless of their geographic location.
Why does belonging matter in the workplace?
Sure, when you boil it down, the workplace is the environment in which we perform the duties of the job for which we get paid. But we also want to feel like what we are doing matters! The average person will spend around 90,000 hours – about one-third of their life – in the workplace over the course of their lifetime. A sense of belonging can go a long way toward making those hours more fulfilling and making us feel more connected to those around us and to our own lives. In short, belonging in the workplace helps fill our basic human need for connection and purpose.
Employee belonging matters from the business perspective as well. Employees who feel like they belong tend to be more engaged, more creative and innovative, higher performers, and more loyal to their company. This translates into increased productivity, less burnout, greater retention – and ultimately higher revenues.
What can employers and managers do to foster a culture of belonging?
Clearly, employee belonging brings massive benefits, both for individual employees and for teams and companies as a whole. But how do we make people feel like they belong when they are rarely – if ever – in the same room together? What can employers and managers do to help their teams build cohesive relationships and foster a sense of purpose even from different physical locations?
Acknowledge the challenge
Be transparent about the challenges of a hybrid environment. The truth is, maintaining a sense of belonging and connection in a hybrid environment takes a little more conscious effort. Acknowledge that openly and encourage employees to both think about what they need to feel engaged and reach out to their colleagues and teammates regularly. The point here is not to pressure employees to physically come into the office more often but rather to acknowledge the struggles we all face in our new hybrid reality and let employees know they are not alone. We are all learning to navigate this new work reality together.
Model desired behaviors
Of course, encouraging your employees to make more efforts to engage will only be successful if you are willing to do the same. Establish an open-door policy or set regular “office hours” when employees can log in to a standing Zoom or Teams meeting to discuss whatever is on their minds. Turn your camera on in meetings so employees can see your face. Check-in with your managers or direct reports frequently to see how they’re doing and encourage them to do the same for their teams. You can even consider establishing an “engagement manager” role – someone responsible for checking in with individual team members to make sure they are feeling engaged and connected to their work and to help them navigate any challenges.
Make meetings more mindful
We’ve all heard the joke, “This meeting could have been an email.” But in the new workplace reality, Zoom fatigue is very real. To help employees avoid burnout, consider alternate means of collaborating and communicating important information outside of meetings. This could be through an internal email blast or a short video or message posted on Teams or your company intranet. Instead of in-person working sessions, try using shared Teams or Google documents to allow team members to collaborate and contribute in their own time.
When meetings do take place, make sure to be mindful of remote participants. Test A/V set-up ahead of time to make sure everything is working. If there are multiple people together in the same room, make sure whoever is speaking is sitting close enough to the microphone for remote participants to hear. Monitor the chat feature so that remote participants can contribute easily and feel heard, and try to cut down on side conversations so that people on the other side of the screen don’t feel left out.
Take advantage of new tools
We have seen an explosion in new technologies aimed at enhancing virtual meetings. Don’t be afraid to experiment with them! Use breakout rooms to foster smaller, more intimate conversations. Set up a fun poll using Mentimeter as an icebreaker at the beginning of a meeting. Bring up Miro or another virtual whiteboard so meeting participants can collaborate in a more tangible way by adding ideas, grouping like comments, etc.
By using these technologies themselves, encouraging managers to do so, and even investing in company-wide licenses, employers can ensure their hybrid teams have the tools they need to be engaged and successful.
Create social opportunities
For many of us, the social aspect of the office environment is what we miss most. While remote and hybrid work certainly has its perks, it also means fewer opportunities to chat with our colleagues in the hallway and build relationships more organically.
Employers can help counter some of the loneliness that comes with remote and hybrid work by scheduling opportunities for socialization. Establish monthly video lunch-and-learn workshops where employees can learn a new skill or virtual lunchtime trivia games for a little fun and friendly competition. If feasible, you can even send employees a voucher to order their lunch on a food delivery app.
Set aside 15 or 30 minutes before regularly scheduled staff meetings for a “coffee hour”, where employees can log in or meet in the conference room and chat more informally with no set agenda.
Schedule regular in-person get-togethers and encourage wider attendance. This could be happy hour at a location near the office, an in-person kick-off meeting to launch a new project or service, a company picnic, or a volunteer opportunity. Make sure to announce in-person events ahead of time to allow people to schedule transportation and childcare, and be flexible and understanding of varying COVID-related concerns.
Finally, ask your employees what types of social activities they’d like to see! People are much more likely to join in and feel engaged when it’s something they are interested in.
Our new hybrid work reality brings challenges, but it also presents opportunities to enhance employees’ sense of purpose and belonging and ultimate well-being. By making some conscious choices, employers can help their teams adjust to this new reality and flourish.