It's a key connection point – whether employees are at home, on the frontline, or in the office
What does belonging mean in a virtual world? That’s one of the big questions facing HR leaders as they map out their organisations’ future of work.
Because while great culture is the result of an array of ingredients like diversity, inclusion, and recognition, belonging is harder to quantify. It’s a feeling, rather than a fact, but without it, employees may struggle to bring their whole selves to work.
At a recent roundtable session, hosted by HRD and Achievers, HR leaders from a number of different sectors shared their insight on the topic of belonging and the key challenges they’re grappling with. Moderated by Susan Ferrier, NAB’s group executive of people and culture, the lively discussion saw people leaders delve into how they are fostering a sense of connection and belonging from afar, often across timezones, teams and various different brands.
As articulated by Ferrier, belonging is “not something individuals can generate themselves” – it’s something that is created through connection and relationships. It’s the magic that happens when employees feel seen, heard, and supported as they show up day after day to do their work.
She said: “As a result of that, I think physical, personal connection is extremely important to drive belonging. That's where I'm really looking forward to a world where we can go back into workplaces and bring people together, not necessarily on a five-day-a-week basis, but I do feel there's an extra dividend that comes from physically being in and around people in a workplace or in any other context.”
During the session attendees tackled both the practical strategy behind creating belonging, and the conceptual aspect. While much of the talk around the future of work has focused on hybrid knowledge workers with the ability to work remotely, several of the HR leaders have faced a very different challenge. With several attendees from the healthcare and retail professions, the bulk of their workforce has continued to work in a physical location throughout the pandemic.
One of the ways they've maintained a strong sense of belonging throughout the challenging last 18 months has been to double down on the organisation’s purpose. One HR leader said their mantra ‘people caring for people’ has been a core focus to come back to in all their decision making and initiatives, ensuring that they’re actively encouraging connection across all teams and levels of the business. Aligning that purpose with leadership is a current focus to ensure the actions of leaders are contributing to belonging and connection.
For workers on the frontline, COVID-19 restrictions may have put a stop to the opportunities for connection that businesses has previously relied on, such as catching up in the break room. Even wearing a mask in a setting like a food manufacturing plant has made talking and connecting more difficult.
“All of those distancing protocols which are really important and we have to comply with actually diminish the community feeling and the glue that holds everyone together,” one attendee commented. “What does bind us all is the feeling that we are here to put food on the shelves and feed the community during Covid and that’s been really powerful as a connecting point.”
Another key challenge that emerged from the session was around creating belonging across various brands within one overarching business, particularly after an acquisition. While those brands have important differentiators that rightfully set them apart, from a belonging perspective, the difficulty is fostering a connection to their overall employer. Belonging is highly contextualised, depending on an employee’s team or the capability of their manager, so how do HR leaders expand belonging across a wider employee network?
One attendee who leads the people function at a healthcare provider said the business has tackled this issue partly by implementing inclusive leadership training to equip leaders with the tools, skills and understanding of how to create connection with their employees – something that is particularly vital in a world of remote working.
Anita Fleming, co-founder and director at FourFold Consulting, took part in the session as co-moderator. Reflecting on the discussion, she said attendees are using “clever practices and small gestures” to foster big connection with their employees.
“We talked a lot about inclusive leadership and leadership as a vehicle for driving that. A lot of organisations seem to be doing quite a bit around leader led sessions. While HR leaders can generate conversation and momentum, leadership is actually what continues to keep people feeling connected. Some good examples of routines were things like Ask Me Anything sessions or Meet The Team that happen on a regular basis,” she said.
The session brought viewpoints and experiences across vastly differing industries but what stood out from all the attendees was the strong link between belonging and purpose. Whether employees are on the frontline or working virtually from home, the ability to drive connection through shared values remains a key strategy for HR leaders. But as attendees pointed out, belonging must also be tied to commercial success.
“It must be more than just something that HR professionals like talking about because we often occupy that space and don't necessarily always think about how the concept we’re talking about makes a contribution to business performance,” Ferrier said.
It's clear that defining an organisation’s values is fundamental, providing an anchor for HR leaders to come back to as they plot their pathway out of the pandemic and into the future of work.