Creating a culture of belonging in a socially distanced world


Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder at culture change business Utopia, shares his view on a shifting work climate. 

Connectivity has topped the agenda in the age of social distancing. Zoom calls in pyjama bottoms replaced the mad dash for Monday meetings; uplifting videos kept the seat warm for watercooler chats.

As we dip back into life as we used to know it, it’s tempting to forget what we learned about a different way of working.

While it might be comforting to revert to ‘norm’, especially at a time of such uncertainty, you can’t dismiss the extraordinary depth most employers have shown themselves capable of.

They’ve made necessary adjustments for people who need them, been more inclusive, and shown genuine empathy. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve created cultures where people feel they belong, even in isolation.

Workplace belonging is invaluable – not only is it a fundamental human need hardwired into us, it also has proven, quantifiable business benefits. According to a study in Harvard Business Review, it delivers a 56% increase in job performance; a 50% drop in turnover risk; and a whopping 75% reduction in sick days.

As we face workplace change again, it’s a good time to run through the five tenets of belonging.

Even before lockdown, according to that HBR study, 40% of workers felt isolated, excluded to the point that it felt like physical pain. After being cooped up alone for more than two months, that feeling is likely to be heightened.

It’s an essential point for leaders to note as they negotiate safety and productivity as part of the back-to-office strategies.

Fostering a culture of belonging for employees across the board, by constantly fostering connections – regular check-ins, buddy systems, film clubs will make a big impact on maintaining morale.

Doing it successfully means taking the cultural temperature of your organisation – this isn’t a one-size-fits all solution, movie clubs aren’t everyone’s bag, so recognise that everyone is different, ask your people what works for them and do your best to accommodate individual needs.

Team rituals
Getting rituals right has been the tightrope on which a work-from-home setup balances or dive-bombs.

As we’ve worked through WFH, we’ve discovered clear markers for success because these rituals have helped set clear expectations of everyone; they helped leaders become more familiar with different working styles in their efforts to reduce potential friction; they’ve embedded clear structures in the absence of everyday distractions, and therefore increased efficacy.

We’ve been super lucky at Utopia – working remotely was our norm pre-Covid 19. But even we have added additional rituals to help support the mental health of the team.

For us, one of the most invaluable is the half-hour check-in every day at 10am, in which work talk is banned. Attendance is optional, but it gives everyone the opportunity to connect and share how they are feeling.

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Cultural intelligence
Too often, people go through the motions of trying to fit in rather than truly belonging. This is something that has arguably been exacerbated by lockdown.

After all, the single-parent sharing a flat with five other people isn’t having the same pandemic experience as the CEO living in a townhouse – but the former is hardly likely to bring that up, such is the cultural nuance of work.

Being culturally intelligent and inclusive is a key part of workplace belonging, and central to it is an understanding of the personal circumstances of each person on the team and this empathetic, people-centric approach goes a long way in creating thriving businesses, powered by engaged workforces.

If cultural intelligence and sensitivity sounds theoretical or impenetrable, take heart: there are accessible hacks. Relatively simple things – like asking people what they’re spending time reading, watching or listening to; asking them – respectfully, of course – who they’re spending time with, or what events they’re attending/webinars they’re tuning in to is a good start.

Actually listen to their responses – engage with them, because this genuine social attention supercharges the belonging process.

Real personal value
A crucial part of belonging is feeling valued. A lot of that comes down to feeling listened to and receiving feedback.

And yet last year, a quarter of home workers were having fewer conversations with their managers about career growth than their colleagues in the office; and 23% of them feared that working remotely would impact their career progression. That’s an awful lot of disenfranchised people.

Nobody expects a two-page report on how they’ve performed every day – a little formal feedback, given often, is enough. Use reflection as a tool for continuous learning and couple this with genuine moments of care – celebrations, gifts and moments of kindness.

I heard a story recently I love: a business leader bought a potted plant for every member of their team to enrich their workplaces at home. It’s a simple thought that will have left every one of those people feeling valued.

Psychological safety
Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999.

Since then, she has observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, she says. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.

It is a “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

This is a complex topic, deserving its own, dedicated piece, but it does need to be mentioned as part of the wider conversation on belonging.

In a nutshell, there are four stages to psychological safety, namely: creating an inclusive environment, where it’s safe to learn; safe to contribute; and genuinely safe to challenge the status quo.

Creating a true sense of belonging takes time, care, and for many organisations, a deep culture change. But fixing exclusion, and driving your own version of belonging is the foundation of creating an inclusive organisation.

And the business benefits of that – not least a happier workforce – are all-too compelling, as I pointed out at the start.

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