A sense of belonging, experts say, is a shared feeling that permeates through a company’s culture — that each employee is a part of a team with a common mission and backed by a strong support system. It’s easy to spot belonging in a workplace, according to Porschia Parker-Griffin, founder and CEO of Fly High Coaching: Just look for workers who collaborate together and feel valued.
Or, as leadership expert Magalie René explains, “belonging is smack in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s the foundation upon which self-esteem and purpose rest. In its absence, the workplace becomes a job of ‘get through the day’ instead of a chance to contribute ideas.”
But belonging is more than a feel-good opportunity for employees. It has a payoff for companies, too. “If people feel like they belong in their workplace, then that suggests their values and their goals align with the overall company ethos,” says Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna. “And that means they’re not only working to get a paycheck, but also to further your company's goals.”
Employees who feel as if they belong within their companies help those businesses myriad ways: They contribute to a positive culture through enthusiasm for their jobs and the company; increase employee engagement and reduce company turnover; and increase productivity and revenue.
Employees that feel a sense of belonging also “work harder, and put in more time and effort to do their job,” says Parker-Griffin. On the flip side, “when people don’t experience a sense of belonging, they naturally do what’s expected — and not much more,” says René. “There’s also less incentive to connect on a personal level. The best companies are made up of individuals who feel personally connected to, and even in some way responsible, for the organization’s success.”
And a sense of belonging can be especially important for remote workers.
A real lack of in-person interaction can lead many remote workers to feel separated — in more than a literal sense — from their teams and workplaces, says Parker-Griffin. And “a sense of belonging is the difference between being a value-added team member” and not, René says.
For many out-of-office employees, “their managers won’t be around to monitor their work ethic as closely,” says Satish. They “need to be really passionate about the company in order for them to keep up their productivity and effort,” she says, and positively contribute to the organization.
That’s just one reason why “companies with remote workers should take extra steps to create a sense of comradery and team spirit,” says Parker-Griffin. If they do, their remote employees can “remain engaged with their colleagues and in their role,” and contribute positively to company.
Now that you know what a sense of belonging can do for your organization and how important it is for remote workers to feel it, here are nine ways to create belonging for remote employees.
1. Give remote workers plenty of opportunities to contribute.
Remote employees can feel disconnected from their teams and — when it comes to meetings — a few steps (or miles) away from the planning process. So, “managers should give their team members an opportunity to contribute to the agenda of team meetings ahead of time,” René says. By allowing remote workers to add to a meeting’s agenda, you single to them that they are key members of your team, she says. It can also “mitigate any discomfort people may have in sharing in a group setting and supports them in overcoming communications challenges,” René adds.
You can promote collaboration outside of meetings, too. For example, you can encourage your staff to spend time talking outside of official meetings to talk about projects, says Parker-Griffin. “This allows remote employees to engage with other team members more frequently,” she says.
2. Schedule routine meetings for “virtual” facetime.
Parker-Griffin suggests scheduling meetings with remote employees weekly, either by Zoom or phone. “Creating a regular group or one-on-one meeting with a remote employee can really help them feel included and supported at work,” she says. “The visual component of being on camera can increase connection, but if that isn’t possible, a phone call is another alternative.” If you have a small team, she also suggests taking the time for one-on-one meetings. These get-togethers can “enhance belonging by showing that you care enough to invest your time with them,” she says.
3. Start team meetings with networking opportunities.
To create a sense of belonging among your employees — especially for those logging in from a distance — René says it’s important to give your team a chance to network whenever they meet, even virtually. She recommends starting each meeting with a five to 10-minute fun networking opportunity, perhaps using prompts to spur conversation and connection. “The prompts can create opportunities for individuals at different levels and from different backgrounds to learn about one another and connect,” she explains. And for remote workers, “this is an ideal way to create or replace the water cooler moments that are becoming less common with virtual work.”
4. Be transparent in how and why your company makes its decisions.
Big company decisions such as bringing on a new team member or client — or letting employees go — can “sometimes make more of an impact on your employees than you realize, especially when they’re not in the office with you watching your decision-making process,” says Satish. Being transparent about why things are happening, however, can have the opposite effect: It can make remote employees feel like they’re an integral part of the team. So, “make sure to always make your team feel like they understand why you made a decision,” says Satish, “and make yourself accessible for questions or feedback. And when in doubt, be overly-communicative.”
5. Conduct regular “temperature checks” with remote workers.
When communicating with remote workers, consider asking your them, “How are you feeling?” instead of “jumping directly into an update on deliverables,” says René. But taking a moment to ask employees about their emotional health, they will likely feel a sense of belonging. “People experience belonging when they are heard,” she explains. “You don’t need to have a solution or response. The question alone offers an opportunity for a team member to share,” and it’s that opportunity that makes people feel cared for. Plus, “vulnerability creates connection,” she says. “Virtual work requires more effort to build a strong working relationship. This is a great way to cultivate it.”
6. Recognize your remote employees’ efforts.
Parker-Griffin recommends that companies “prioritize recognition of your teams.” Here’s how: “When you see something positive happening, take a moment to send an email to your group and highlight the remote team members who are doing a good job,” she says. “This gives them visibility among others who they don’t see and can go a long way in helping them feel that they belong.” If you want to take things a step further, you can share your appreciation in other ways, she says, such as sending remote workers gift cards or company-branded promotional materials such as a notebook or pens to “give them a physical representation of your acknowledgement.”
7. Make your expectations of remote workers clear — and practice what you preach.
“It’s especially important with remote workers to make sure you’re making your expectations abundantly clear and following them yourself,” says Satish. Why? Because if you’re “telling your employees to do one thing but dropping the ball yourself, you’re going to start making those employees believe that your beliefs actually don’t line up with your behaviors,” she says, and that can lead to them feeling disconnected from your teams a whole. “For example, if you're always telling them to be online at 9 a.m. but you don't respond to emails until 10, then you might be sending them the wrong message,” she says. “That could lead to resentment from your team in the long run, so make sure your asks are standards you’ll be able to uphold yourself.”
8. Host virtual happy hours to foster connection.
Every once in a while, ask your team to join a virtual happy hour on Zoom or another online platform, suggests Parker-Griffin. “As a leader, you can set the parameters,” she says, but a nice idea is shipping your team snacks and drinks to enjoy during their time together. “A gathering like this facilitates discussion about topics other than work, and builds relationships,” she says.
9. Take time to recognize things that may be affecting your workers.
René recommends that you “take an intersectional approach to leadership by acknowledging any particularly traumatic public events occurring that affect the marginalized members of your team.” Here’s how: mention the event, then say, “Please let me know how I or human resources can be of support,” she says. If this feels a tad too personal, René urges you to reconsider: “Ignoring traumatic public events is the quickest way to make someone feel invisible,” she warns. “This is especially true when working with members of the BIPOC community.”
She adds that “compassionate leaders make those around them feel seen. People who experience being seen are more likely to feel they belong.” Plus, “remote workers are often navigating the personal and professional simultaneously, particularly when working from home,” she says.