Our last article discussed that while Working from Home (WFH) has shown clear benefits for both employers and employees a “Sense of belonging” to an organization could be weakened through working in isolation. Here we will look at some ways that organizations can ensure their employees’ sense of belonging is preserved and strengthened. A list of references and further reading on this topic is supplied below.
Rethinking the Organization’s Values for a Virtual Workplace
In an article for the Harvard Business Review Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliot argue that the first challenge for leaders managing a remote workforce “is acknowledging that culture can no longer be forged in the same way as it was in an office-centric model.”[i] Instead organisations need to find new ways to communicate and demonstrate desired values and behaviours to their employees. Hinds and Elliot reference IBM’s ‘Work from Home’ pledge, as an adaptation of the inclusive culture on which IBM prides itself.
The IBM pledge was a grassroots initiative that evolved into a company-wide exercise to which all staff committed to, including IBM’s CEO, Arvind Krishna.[ii] It explicitly recognises the difficulties of balancing work and home life whilst working remotely during a pandemic and includes promises to support ‘not camera-ready’ times and new time limits for meetings to prevent video fatigue.
This pledge is not just a set of ‘working from home’ guidelines written by senior management and disseminated to employees. By consulting with staff from all levels of the organisation and listening to their challenges they developed an action-oriented pledge with practical solutions for mitigating these challenges. IBM was able both to demonstrate and safeguard inclusivity in the digital workplace, one of its long-standing values.
Tackling Social Isolation and Replacing a Shared Context
Research has shown that while WFH can increase job satisfaction and productivity a frequent negative effect is the feeling of social and professional isolation,[iii] which often affects overall performance. (link to previous post) As our ability to meaningfully connect with our colleagues is reduced when we are not physically present,[iv] organizations need to build in opportunities for social interaction and bonding to ensure that employees feel connected to their colleagues, and by extension, their employer.
Simply arranging extra team meetings does not seem to be the solution to tackling the problem. According to Slack’s REEI, workers who attended weekly status meetings felt worse about their sense of belonging to an organization.[v] Instead, employers should look at innovative ways to schedule group social activities and team-building exercises in the virtual workplace.
This could mean recreating the interactions that typically happen in the office; for example, wellness activities like yoga or Pilates classes with professional instructors, across video calls. Organizations have also made use of innovative technologies like the ‘donut app’ – which provides a virtual office kitchen, allowing employees an opportunity to meet and get to know their colleagues informally on their coffee breaks.[vi]
Virtual workplaces also provide the opportunity to introduce team building events that wouldn’t be possible inside the confines of an office. Events like virtual wine tastings, games nights, happy hour or cook-along lunch sessions which make the most of employees’ new proximity to their kitchens, giving staff a chance to connect with each other, and build relationships in a non-work setting.
Adapting Leadership Styles for Virtual Management
In our experience, managers unaccustomed to operating from a distance should consider adapting their leadership style to ensure they are coaching and empowering team members to do their best work independently.
As the example of IBM’s ‘Work from Home’ pledge showed, remote working, especially during a pandemic, presents different challenges to different people. Leaders wanting to increase a sense of belonging amongst their workforce should demonstrate active listening and empathy for their employees’ personal situations; for example, balancing work with caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities. By doing so, managers will help disconnected team members feel recognised.
Leaders should create virtual opportunities to recognise employee accomplishments. According to a 2017 survey of 14,000+ global professionals carried out by LinkedIn,[vii] 59% of respondents identified recognition for their accomplishments as the most important factor in making them feel like they belong. Remote working can mean that managers lose the opportunity to provide informal positive feedback. Leaders looking to celebrate employee achievements in the virtual workplace can utilize apps like Thankbox[viii] to send eCards and virtual gift cards, host virtual award ceremonies or simply allocate time and space in team meetings or on team channels for employee ‘shoutouts’ for excellent work.
In summary, by paying attention to employees’ sense of belonging, overall productivity of organisations can be improved. ODRL provides innovative and evidence-based services to help organisations improve their effectiveness and performance.
If you would like to discuss the issues raised in this article, please contact Dr Kay Sahdev (email@example.com)
[i] Hinds, P. & Elliot, B. (2021). WFH Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture. Harvard Business Review. Available at: WFH Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture (hbr.org) (Accessed 10 February 2021).
[ii] Arvind Krishna. (2020). I pledge to support my fellow IBMers working from home during COVID-19. Available at: (1) I pledge to support my fellow IBMers working from home during COVID-19 | LinkedIn (Accessed 08 March 2021).
[iii] Allen, T.D., et al. (2015). How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16 (2): 40-68.
[iv] Kiesler, S. & Cummings, J. N. (2002). ‘What do we know about proximity and distance in work groups? A legacy of research’. In P. Hinds & S. Kiesler (Eds.) Distributed Work (p. 57–80). Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[v] Slack. (2020). Rewiring how we work: building a new employee experience for a digital-first world. Available at: Rewiring how we work: building a new employee experience for a digital-first world (Accessed 05 February 2021).