EngagementCultureHR leaders need to build workplace belonging during COVID-19

HR leaders need to build workplace belonging during COVID-19

Company culture is vital at the best of times, but as organizations navigate through crisis, ensuring that employees are happy and engaged could be crucial to boosting performance. Lauren Romansky, Managing Vice President, Gartner, unpacked one particular area of this, outlining the importance of employee belonging during this difficult time.

Building a sense of belonging can have an incredibly positive impact on organizational performance, but it’s no easy task for HR leaders to nurture it. Evolving workplace culture, ongoing digitalization, and societal shifts have all driven significant disruption in the workplace over recent years, and made widespread belonging a difficult thing to achieve.

This challenge has grown exponentially in recent months, with the coronavirus pandemic transforming the way businesses across the world operate, potentially forever. Suddenly employees are working from remote locations, trying to juggle their personal and working lives, and interacting almost exclusively via video conferencing. And yet, workplace belonging is as important than ever.

Here we explore the reasons why workplace belonging is so effective in a business and how HR leaders can strive to build it in spite of current remote working conditions.

A boost to business performance

Often businesses consider workplace belonging as an initiative solely focused on building employee morale and engagement, but they should also consider the impact on employee performance. Research reveals that a 20% increase in organizational inclusion translates to a 6.2% increase in on-the-job effort, a 5% increase in employees’ intent to stay with the organization, and nearly a 3% increase in individual employee performance.

This research shows that when employees perceive acceptance within a given group in an organization, they feel that their employer is invested in them as individuals, and they reward that employer with hard work and dedication. Other studies also point to employees taking significantly less sick days as a result of belonging.

Employment trends before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult for HR leaders to cultivate this culture of belonging. Employees were less likely to stay with a single employer for a long period of time, while increasing workplace demands and expectations on managers was resulting in less time spent interacting with and providing training for direct reports.

As businesses enter into an unprecedented era of uncertainty, HR leaders should be seizing the moment to help their organization foster workplace belonging and inclusion for all employees. After all, the performance of each of those individuals will be paramount in helping the business navigate these challenging times.

The importance of belonging in a crisis

It goes without saying that businesses are asking their employees to operate in extraordinary circumstances right now. The pandemic will transform the ways that companies function permanently. For at least the next year, we can expect businesses to be trialing various practices to guarantee workplace safety, including new shift patterns, health screening, and office social distancing.

During any time of uncertainty – not to mention the greatest health crisis of our generation – employees will naturally experience feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. They become disengaged, and misconduct increases by as much as 33%.  In this instance, individuals are also worrying about the health of family members, their children’s education, or picking up necessities at their local supermarket.

For many companies, the economic impact of the disease is forcing them into making difficult business decisions, including furloughing staff, enforcing pay cuts, and making redundancies. In doing so, each is stepping into impossible territory when it comes to protecting workplace morale, talent attraction and retention, and the reputation of the brand.

Workplace belonging cannot shield a business from discontent towards its decisions, but the feelings of psychological safety, support and trust that it drives across the organization will be essential in helping a business maintain its long-term credibility as an employer and keep existing employers loyal and engaged.

Workplace belonging in remote conditions

So how can HR leaders create a sense of belonging in a workplace when its staff are working in different locations across the country? There are various tools and tactics that HR teams can utilize to mitigate some of the existing challenges and still drive positive sentiment across the business.

Firstly, they can look to leverage enterprise resource groups (ERGs) to create much needed social connections. While ERGs are traditionally set up to connect employees with shared identities, they can also be used to engage non-members by providing support and guidance on emerging challenges.

Another important step is to create a culture of virtual touch-points and interactions. In a traditional work environment, leaders demonstrate care by stopping at a colleague’s desk to say hello, scheduling a coffee, or setting up a social event with the team. This is often neglected in the day-to-day trials and tribulations of remote working.

HR should work with leaders on ways to simulate a range of regular video interactions, including team games, breakfasts, and coffee chats.

During the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an abrupt change to working practices that puts existing inclusion initiatives and the employee’s sense of belonging at risk. For example, working structures, resources and support systems may no longer accommodate all employees.

Meanwhile, there are new groups of employees with complex needs, including employees classed as vulnerable to the coronavirus, working parents, employees with care-giving responsibilities, and quarantined employees. HR departments should partner with diversity and inclusion leaders to reassess business inclusion and belonging strategies collectively.

Finally, leaders need to equip managers and leaders with the tools for nurturing workplace belonging. In light of the enforced remote working situation, many managers will be confused about the best tactics to understand employee concerns, and make those individuals feel included. For example, a manager may need to accommodate different communication styles when it comes to virtual team meetings, allowing individuals to use instant messaging functions or converse in smaller groups where appropriate. HR leaders should help managers translate and visualize what belonging looks like in a remote setting.

Build belonging now to prepare for the future

COVID-19 has turned both working and personal lives upside down almost overnight, and it has never been more important for businesses to bridge the gap to their employees and make them feel valued as individuals.

However, there has also never been a better time for HR leaders to start evaluating and redeveloping their workplace inclusion and belonging strategies. The impact of the virus is likely to be felt for years to come – even when a vaccine is developed. Businesses have never had a greater incentive to prepare for the future.

Building a sense of belonging will help a business generate trust, engagement and dedication from employees at a time when it is needed most, and start to lay the foundations for future success.

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