A hybrid work environment – one where both remote and office working is facilitated – has become something of the “new normal” for organisations in recent years. And it’s been beneficial for many; giving employees greater flexibility and control over where they work can help boost employee work/life balance and improve mental health. The latter is a particular focus for many HR teams at the moment, especially in light of the World Health Organisation announcement that poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion per year.

As Jessica Jones, Early Careers Programme Manager at Evelyn Partners, explains, "Successful hybrid working requires trust, intentional efforts to foster connection and belonging, and the flexibility to embrace asynchronous work. With the right technology and infrastructure, hybrid working can be a competitive advantage for organisations seeking to differentiate themselves in today's market and appeal to a diverse and dynamic workforce."

In today’s competitive talent market, it’s vital that employers find ways to support their teams, and boost employee loyalty, talent retention and talent acquisition in the process. Hybrid ticks a lot of the boxes – not least because employees and candidates themselves have come to expect it. Our research reveals that nine out of ten agree that employees now have greater expectations with regards to hybrid working.

Nevertheless, organisations have to find ways to make it work for them, and some players in the market are worried about the impact of hybrid working on their organisation, especially with regards to team loyalty, communication, relationship-building and collaboration. “We’re encouraging people back onsite, at least to connect, with socials, free coffee, leadership feedback roundtables,” said one business leader we spoke to for our 2022 survey. “There is always something lost if you don't get time with colleagues face-to-face.”

Connection is taking a hit in today’s hybrid working world. Why? “People simply haven’t worked physically inside the business – they’ve been away from it for the past few years and connecting largely virtually,” explains Amanda Baldwin, Chief People Officer at Mace. “So, like many businesses, we are working much harder to recreate the bond and emotional attachment to the business which to some extent, has been broken.”

Indeed, almost two-thirds of the respondents we spoke with for our 2022 survey found that remote/hybrid working makes it more challenging to cultivate a sense of belonging – vital to creating a supportive and engaging company culture. So what can organisations do to overcome this challenge, and still provide the support and working practices that employees and candidates have come to expect?

Why is a sense of belonging important?

A sense of belonging relates to the human need to feel accepted, included and secure. With regards to the workplace, an employee who experiences a sense of belonging is comfortable being themselves at work and feels both seen and appreciated as a person (not just for the work they do).

Furthermore, today’s candidates and employees are looking beyond the material perks of employment. They want more of a sense of purpose, value and meaning from their jobs. They want to belong. As BIE Executive Director Claire Paramo explained in our 2022 report: “People want to connect with the companies they work for. They want to be their authentic selves at work, and they want a voice.”

Employees who feel they belong tend to feel valued and motivated, and as a consequence they perform better, experience a positive impact on their overall wellbeing, and are more engaged. Moreover, engaged and content employees tend to challenge themselves more, take ownership of their work and generally find ways to thrive. In short: boosting a sense of belonging helps bring out the best in people. Without it, employees can feel uncomfortable or even insecure in their workplaces, negatively impacting their creativity, willingness to collaborate, performance and more.

How to cultivate a strong sense of belonging in your organisation

Cultivating a sense of belonging is easier with all employees physically in the office. In the past, organisations may have taken for granted the added benefits of in-person working, such as the opportunity for social get-togethers and the process of learning by osmosis. However, in today’s hybrid world, with less time spent in person and more on screen, it takes a more conscious effort to achieve.

Here are our top recommendations for re-energising your company culture and bringing your team together to help foster a strong sense of belonging and engagement. 

1. Encourage social connections

Developing relationships in the team is vital. Leadership can give these a boost either formally, through measures like team-building activities or skills-building workshops, or informally by supporting employee-led events through the provision of funds or time off.

As hybrid employees won’t always be in the same location at the same time, consider assigning a mentor to new members of staff. This will help ensure that new joiners are introduced to the organisation and supported in those important early weeks.

Similarly, don’t let team meetings and one-on-ones slip off the radar. Whether conducted in-person or virtually, it’s important to stay in touch with each other and encourage positive communication and collaboration as much as possible.

2. Foster safety and security

Belonging has its roots in a feeling of security. Employees who feel safe enough to be themselves, express their ideas and feelings and get help if they need it are more likely to feel like they belong. To encourage your employees to feel safe and secure in your organisation, consider the following as first steps:

  • Build psychological safety: Let your team know that there will be no negative repercussions for speaking their minds, sharing ideas, asking for help, or admitting mistakes. And encourage your senior leadership to be transparent in this regard – if they are open about making a mistake or needing time off, they can help lead by example.
  • Aim for clarity: It’s important to be clear about your employees’ role requirements so as to set them up for success and, crucially, not make them feel wrong-footed later. Make sure leaders communicate this clearly to their teams. Similarly, communicating always involves the potential for misunderstandings or misinterpretations, but this risk can be compounded when teams are trying to collaborate across different locations. Providing them with a communication strategy or set of best practice guidelines can be helpful.
  • Grant autonomy: Letting your team know that they are trusted enough to take a degree of control in their jobs, and even craft them to suit their own strengths, can deepen engagement, bolster accountability and ensure they feel established.

3. Focus on career development

Helping your employees see and realise a future with your organisation is extremely beneficial: demonstrating your investment in their career and helping them grow makes them feel valued; and it secures the future of your in-house talent pipeline.

“Organisations that lead with purpose, communicate with clarity, and empower their employees with autonomy, while providing equal access to development opportunities can unlock new levels of productivity, creativity, and talent retention,” explains Jessica Jones.

In a hybrid set-up, where it’s less likely that informal chats or learning-by-osmosis will take place, it’s important that organisations tackle career development head-on. Arrange one-on-ones to speak to employees about their career goals, identify areas (both directly and laterally connected to their current roles) for professional development and discuss possibilities for advancement and promotion.

In such discussions, a coaching leadership style, encouraging employees to engage with you and explore the possibilities available, can yield great results. Speak with them openly and directly, and then work together to set realistic expectations.

4. Make the most of your tech

Although the past few years may have created a sense of fatigue when it comes to virtual connection, technology is nevertheless extremely useful in bringing people together. Explore the possibilities afforded by your current tech, and open yourselves up to investing in new ones. Even simple things like a Slack channel that’s solely for organising social events, or building an internal social channel to encourage cross-company chat and idea-sharing, can make a real impact.

“The way companies engage with their tech is critical if they want to stay relevant, attract new hires, retain key talent and truly realise the benefits of hybrid working. Employees crave speed, ease and convenience” explains Katherine Watkins, Chief People Officer at Selbey Anderson. “Most companies have good tech platforms but they are not unlocking all the features of it. That was us and it prompted our audit of our internal communications portal. We found features we hadn’t switched on, we found areas of the site that had low engagement rates so we decommissioned them. We then identified changes we could make to the site that gave our teams quicker access to collateral they were most interested in or needed for their roles.”

5. Reaffirm your company values

Shared purpose brings people together, so let your employees know who you are as an organisation and what is important to you. Make sure your company vision and values are clearly communicated and understood. In a hybrid environment, making your values manifest through externally and internally facing programmes and initiatives (volunteer days for charities your company supports, employee recognition awards, and so on) can help uplift and embed them in your wider culture.

6. Be fair

It’s important that, no matter which strategies you implement to support your employees, they are distributed and felt equally across your workforce. With hybrid, it’s important not to alienate or provide more support or perks to a particular group. Treat everyone fairly, no matter where they work.

How our network makes hybrid work

In our 2022 survey, we asked our respondents how they make hybrid work in their organisations. Here are some of the answers they provided:

  • “We have regular virtual (not compulsory) meet-ups.”
  • “We focus on regular communication, including one-to-ones with leaders and team members and weekly check-ins to monitor progress and help with issues.”
  • “We treat our employees like adults.”
  • “We focus on output, using clear and measurable goals and expectations. Core hours – during which everyone is contactable – also helps.”
  • “Tools and technology are vital.”
  • “Each of our global offices has their own strategy, but generally we don’t force people to come in. We communicate on initiatives regularly, so people feel safe to come in, and we have lots of activities and events (BBQs, sports teams, remote cooking classes) to help maintain connections.”
  • “We focus on results, not the clock.”
  • “Our flexible policies are led by managers who have adult-to-adult conversations with the team, with guidance and support from HR.”
  • “We don’t put anything too specific in place – we give our managers the ability to allow greater flexibility.”
  • “We’re not policing it. We’re asking people and we’re trusting people to come in. Some teams are coming in as whole teams, so they’re choosing a particular day and they come in as a whole team so that they can all get together.”
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