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The Belonging & Disconnect: Culture and Policy

Despite evidence that time off can help workers avoid burnout and perform at their highest levels, most workers have not been taking enough of it. It may be time for organizations to fix a disconnect between their time-off policies and the culture around using them.

​When workers appreciate how their individual work helps to advance goals they support and find meaningful, they will likely be more engaged, more motivated, and more likely to perform at a high level.

ORGANIZATIONAL efforts to foster belonging have historically and primarily focused on making every individual feel respected and treated fairly in an inclusive work environment. While this remains foundational, leading organizations are forging a stronger link between belonging and organizational performance by strengthening workers’ connections with their teams and fostering their sense of contribution to meaningful shared goals.

Current drivers

Of course, belonging—including the sense of feeling respected and treated fairly—has been an organizational priority for some time. Promoting respect and fairness for all is a large part of many organizations’ diversity and inclusion efforts, and those efforts, when effective, pay off. A 2019 study by BetterUp found that workplace belonging can lead to an estimated 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent reduction in turnover risk, and a 75 percent decrease in employee sick days. The study found that a single incidence of “micro-exclusion” can lead to an immediate 25 percent decline in an individual’s performance on a team project.

Why has belonging at work become a top organizational priority now? Some of it is external. Many people feel the world is becoming less stable, more polarized, and more volatile.

Many organizations are struggling with fostering belonging in a polarized world. Even organizations that are known for their emphasis on psychological safety and openness have needed to issue new guidelines to reduce disruptive workplace discussions. In one example, a company circulated a memo asking workers to avoid any conversations that might be disruptive to the workplace or lead to divisions among employee groups. The organization scaled back weekly meetings where employees could previously discuss anything—including political issues—with senior leaders and shifted their focus instead to monthly sessions focused on business strategy.

External factors aren’t all that is driving belonging’s importance; what’s happening within the organization is having an impact as well. Shifts in workforce composition are one growing challenge. With alternative work arrangements on the rise, many workers may not formally “belong” to the organization they work for—which can make it harder for them to feel a sense of belonging at work and can make it harder for people in traditional work arrangements to feel a sense of unity with them. Workplace technology is also a contributing force. While technology enables instantaneous communication with virtually anyone, the way people use that technology can—paradoxically—contribute to increased feelings of isolation. Many virtual workers cite loneliness as one of the remote working’s challenges.

These forces are playing out against a backdrop where many people are working longer hours. As work consumes more waking hours than ever before, people are looking to work to provide more than just a paycheck. Some observers note that, as working hours have lengthened, people are increasingly looking to work for personal fulfillment and satisfaction—which can include, among other things, a sense of belonging.

Perspective

The view is that creating a sense of belonging at work is the outcome of three mutually reinforcing attributes. Workers should feel comfortable at work, including being treated fairly and respected by their colleagues. They should feel connected to the people they work with and the teams they are part of. And they should feel that they contribute to meaningful work outcomes—understanding how their unique strengths are helping their teams and organizations achieve common goals.

Twenty-five percent of survey respondents identified fostering an environment where workers feel they are treated fairly and can bring their authentic selves to work—a comfort—as the biggest driver of belonging. Thirty-one percent said that having a sense of community and identifying with a defined team—connection—was the biggest driver. And 44 percent, a plurality, reported that feeling aligned to the organization’s purpose, mission, and values and being valued for their individual contributions—contribution—was the biggest driver of belonging at work.

“Belonging” explores the evolution from comfort to connection to contribution— suggesting that workers can find purpose and value in work when they are able to identify the impact they are making on organizational objectives and goals.

The progression from comfort to connection to contribution is an additive one, with each step building on the one before. Many organizations have already made great progress on comfort—creating an inclusive environment where workers feel respected and treated fairly. Organizations that establish this kind of inclusive culture are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high-performing, six times as likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

Connection, the next step, occurs on two levels: when workers feel they have meaningful relationships with coworkers and their teams, and when they feel connected with the organization’s purpose and goals. The advent and continuing popularity of business resource groups—groups aimed at connecting and empowering people with similar backgrounds and social identities—is one example of how organizations have promoted stronger connections among workers. One example of the power of workers feeling connected with a broader purpose can be seen in Unilever’s “Brands with a Purpose” initiative, which creates products that are both affordable and commercially viable for consumers in rural villages. People working on Brands with Purpose teams have the highest engagement scores at the company, and the brands themselves are growing 69 percent faster than the rest of the business.

The third step, contribution, take comfort and connection still further. When workers feel a sense of contribution, they can not only feel respected and treated fairly at work and have strong relationships with their colleagues and teams, but workers can also see how their individual talents and efforts make a meaningful difference in advancing team and organizational outcomes. To put it simply, they can see how what they do truly matters in the pursuit of common valued goals. Survey results support the link between a feeling of contribution and a feeling of belonging: Sixty-three percent of our survey respondents, when asked how creating a sense of belonging supports organizational performance, answered that it does so by enhancing alignment between individual and organizational objectives.

One example of an organization that strives for a culture in which everyone feels able to contribute to meaningful work outcomes is Alibaba. Says Alibaba CEO Zhang Yong: “The essence of Alibaba’s culture is that we have faith in each one of us.” Alibaba recognizes that making it safe for workers to express their views and opinions is the only way to drive the kind of meaningful collaboration that can translate its workforce’s incredible diversity into business value.

An appreciation of one’s contribution to the work can help foster belonging in a more diverse and even polarized world. Belonging based on contribution does not require people to agree on (for instance) their political views or conform to a single cultural template. Instead, it celebrates individuals’ and teams’ diversity of thought in ways that promote their commitment to shared outcomes, enabling them to engage in discussions that consider a variety of perspectives with the aim of coming to an agreement. When teams are united by a common purpose, differences in opinion on matters unrelated to that purpose can become less relevant—and differences in opinion on how to achieve that purpose become grounds for reasonable dialogue rather than a source of divisiveness.

Organizational culture refers to the system of values, beliefs, and behaviors that shapes how work gets done within an organization. In a culture of belonging, that means an environment that supports all three elements of comfort, connection, and contribution. Workers should feel their perspectives are respected and valued; the culture should be one that encourages everyone to be authentic, share their diverse perspectives, and align to the team’s and organization’s purpose. And workers need clear mechanisms, such as incentives and peer/supervisor feedback, to show them how their work makes a difference in the pursuit of broader shared goals.

Such an organizational culture is built on leadership behaviors that reinforce organizational values of fairness, respect, and psychological safety on teams and inspire workers to perform at their best. Again, comfort and connection are important in facilitating contribution here. Teams where workers feel psychologically safe bringing their views to the table, and where their relationships with other team members are strong enough to allow them to do so in an assertive yet constructive way, will be well-positioned to engage in productive friction—the ability to draw out conflict and learn from disagreements to generate new insights.

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