Intensified by the global pandemic, a sense of belonging has become a pressing organizational priority.  Work routines have been upended for leaders and employees alike – office shutdowns, remote work, extended work hours, and furloughs and layoffs.

Given the prolonged nature of the disruption, what does it mean to “belong at work” during a sustained crisis? What are the important lessons being learned and experienced now? What do those lessons tell us about the actions we need to take now while the crisis provides the awareness and motivation for change?  

Here are the five things we’ve learned about belonging in the age of COVID-19: 

  1. The need to feel we belong at work has never been more important. The economic, professional and personal uncertainty associated with the global pandemic has profoundly affected the workplace. While the unexpected shift to a virtual work environment produced an early uptick in employee engagement and productivity, the prolonged nature of the disruption has taken its toll. In June, Gallup registered the largest drop in U.S. employee engagement in the past 20 years. And in a recent global survey of employees across industries, 75% of respondents reported feeling more socially isolated since the start of the pandemic. Sixty-seven percent of employees reported increased stress, and 53% said they feel emotionally exhausted. So what actions can employers take?

    In our global study of full-time employees, respondents said fostering a sense of belonging at work significantly increases their motivation, commitment, emotional and physical well-being, and overall engagement. Ultimately, respondents said, these feelings of belonging lead to greater innovation and increased productivity. In the midst of so much uncertainty, it’s critical that organizations intentionally focus on nurturing a sense of belonging: feeling connected, included, valued and welcomed.

  1. Feeling connected: Managers play a crucial role as the connection point in the organization-employee relationship. Our personal connections with managers and colleagues are an important part of feeling like we belong. But with the rapid unplanned shift to remote work, the natural touchpoints that feed our social connections, build trust, inspire collaboration and spark new ideas in the physical workplace disappeared.

    In an effort to understand the impact of these changing work patterns, Microsoft launched a digital experiment. By harnessing behavioral data, the company discovered employees worked hard to maintain and even expand their social connections in the virtual world. But it was their managers who worked even longer and harder to nurture connections among their dispersed teams with increased team calls, more frequent one-on-ones and IMs. In short, it’s managers who are acting as an organizational “connector-in-chief” and providing an “emotional buffer” for employees as they navigate the many unexpected changes.”

    It’s important to realize that no crisis management initiative, change management program or D&I initiative could have truly prepared managers for the role they play in today’s working reality. As one senior IT director at a financial services organization shared with me, “I’m exhausted – I spend a lot of time aligning my group, helping them focus their work, and listening to them talk about their personal and mental health issues. And because we’re virtual, I don’t get to leave these issues behind at work. They follow me – at the end of the day. I need help managing my mental health too.”

    It’s critical that organizations focus on front-line managers and provide them with the new skills, technical tools and emotional support they need to continue acting as our “connectors-in-chief.”

  1. Feeling included: Our dated assumptions about who are the most important employees in an organization have been upended. This spring, for the first time, front-line workers in a wide array of occupations found themselves praised as heroes. People thanked them for putting themselves at risk by working during the pandemic. Organizations were turned upside down as white-collar employees were furloughed, and front-line jobs were deemed “essential.” And yet, only 11% of U.S. frontline workers say they were consistently able to influence decisions at work. Now, seven months in, the many early “heroes of the pandemic” are feeling overworked, overwhelmed and expendable.

    Our self-confidence and motivation at work is heavily influenced by whether we are included in the processes and decision making that affect our work.  Feeling included is about having the resources – like personal protective equipment – that we need to do our work. It’s about having our opinions actively solicited and acted upon – like how to provide products and services in a way that keeps us safe and healthy. Employees recently surveyed in the U.S. and UK say the most important attribute of a great employment experience is when they are empowered and trusted to do their job. The act of being included signals that we are important – that our work matters. 

  1. Feeling valued: When the world shut down, the disabled saw it open up – bringing the long-standing issue of accessibility to the forefront. According to Caroline Casey, founder and director of The Valuable 500, there are 1.3 billion people living with disabilities worldwide. Unfortunately, the employment rate for working-age people with disabilities is much lower than that of people without disabilities. But the swift move to remote work amid the pandemic has suddenly leveled the playing field and helped to put workplace accessibility on the leadership agenda. The employers who previously denied disabled employees the reasonable accommodation of working from home have now made it a priority for all their staff members. 

    So, what insights can we gather from this shift? When employers make flexible work arrangements, accessible technology and adaptable work practices the norm – for people with and without disabilities – it creates a more diverse and inclusive culture. For people with disabilities, this can open opportunities for earning income that were not available before the pandemic, bringing new talent into the organization. When all of us can bring our unique differences to work because our needs have been accommodated, and those differences are valued – that’s when we can contribute our personal best on behalf of the organization. 

  1. Feeling welcome: We create elaborate programs to set up employees for success on their first days and months. What about their last day? How you off-board actually says more about your company’s culture than how you onboard. Due to the pandemic, the global economic outlook is not positive. As job losses escalate, nearly half the global workforce is at risk of losing their job. As organizations make those difficult employment decisions, they also need to make a conscious effort to create a compassionate off-boarding process. 

    While onboarding is equally important to creating a sense of belonging, the impressions created when someone leaves the company are more reflective of organizational culture – and perhaps more deeply felt and impactful. When off-boarding, our experience is a reflection of the organization “we know,” not the one we’re “just starting to understand” when onboarding.   

    The off-boarding process also sends an important signal to those left behind. Is this a place I still want to belong? According to one study, layoff survivors experience a 41% decline in job satisfaction, a 36% decline in organizational commitment, and a 20% decline in job performance. Showing respect and appreciation to people leaving the company helps not only them but also those who weren’t laid off to move forward in a more positive and productive way. 

No one knows what the future holds. What we do know is that belonging at work matters more now than ever. When employees are not in the same physical space, it’s easy to become disconnected and disengaged. As connectors-in-chief, managers need to help tether employees to the organization by creating a compassionate place where employees feel included, valued and welcomed. A place where they can bring their innovative ideas to push the company forward. A place where what they do matters and is connected to something bigger.

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Margaret Schweer

Margaret Schweer is COO and Managing Principal of Tammy Erickson Associates, a firm committed to helping organizations develop a compelling view of... Read more