It’s not a surprise that most of us don’t want to work alone — we were never meant to. Even those of us who have worked remotely for years want to feel like we belong at work. As social scientist Brene Brown explains, “We are neuro-biologically hardwired to be in connection with other people.” With so many thrust into the new reality of virtual work by the coronavirus pandemic, the obvious next question has become, How do we maintain that feeling of belonging while remaining far apart?
To answer that question, we asked over 1,500 full-time remote workers worldwide, across genders, generations, geographies, and hierarchies, to tell us how leaders can create and maintain a warm and welcoming workplace that inspires employees to work productively and innovatively — while working virtually. This group was a subset of the 11,000-plus individuals we surveyed on the topic of belonging.
For remote workers, the feeling of belonging is not a fuzzy concept. It’s as concrete for them as it is for those who work together in an office. Feeling like you belong at work is about four things: feeling welcomed, valued, included and connected.
The need for social acceptance influences almost everything we do. Working with people like ourselves, feeling like we could be successful based on what we see and hear, and assessing company fit with our personality are all important parts of what makes an organizational culture inviting. The act of being welcomed signals that we are wanted — physically or virtually.
We often think of the welcoming experience as the on-boarding that occurs when we first join an organization. The reality is that on-boarding is an ongoing process that occurs at a variety of different points in our working life — when changing jobs or being promoted, during a re-organization, or when joining project teams. People who work in virtual groups need to know who their colleagues are in order to work effectively together — how they like to work, the best ways to communicate with them, how to give and receive feedback. A formal welcoming process becomes the mechanism for helping virtual leaders form or re-form teams, build trust and transmit cultural norms, as well as develop a rhythm and structure to the work itself.
In times of crisis, like today, the stories we tell about how we work together virtually become even more important indicators of organizational culture. Inclusive leaders recognize the realities of what it means to work virtually and openly acknowledge the need to be flexible. Meetings are scheduled using rotating time zones when people are not in the same location. Children and pets make welcome appearances in videoconference calls. And out-of-office messages reveal that on this team, there is an understanding that it’s important to accommodate the complexities of life. When leaders share stories about the human realities of their virtual work experiences, it helps build community — revealing that this is a welcoming place to work.
Our personal connections with colleagues and managers are an important part of feeling like we belong. Connection is about forming a unique human bond that signals that we are part of a community — a place where we fit in, in a job that we enjoy, with people we want to interact with.
In the virtual world of work, technology may be one of the most effective ways to increase feelings of belonging. Seventy-one percent of respondents who work remotely said that technology — broadly — can help facilitate a feeling of connection with co-workers. Such technologies as videoconferencing and other collaboration platforms create places for employees to comfortably voice their opinions, share their knowledge and ideas, collaborate, recognize and acknowledge contributions, and socialize.
Companies like social media management software maker Buffer create technology-enabled rituals designed to connect individuals and teams together socially. The weekly “30-minute tea-time for all employees,” virtual lunches and “pair calls” with colleagues are all designed to help remote workers develop and maintain connections with each other. These virtual watercooler encounters are often augmented with Instagram stories designed to offer peeks into what people are doing and thinking. In this way, little snapshots of work and even personal lives become more visible to others — exposing the value of diverse capabilities and increasing connectedness.
Our self-confidence and motivation are heavily influenced by whether we are included in the processes and decision making that directly affect our work. Feeling included is about having the resources we need to do our work, as well as having our ideas and opinions actively solicited and acted upon. The act of being included signals that we are important — that our work matters.
As part of our research, we created an inclusion scale. It turned up a strong correlation between manager behavior and reported feelings of belonging for employees who work remotely. To better understand, we asked an open-ended question: What could your manager do to increase your feeling of belonging?
The results were often emotional and very revealing, and were consistent with what employees who work together physically want and need from their leaders. There is a certain intimacy to belonging, and front-line managers play a significant role in creating an inclusive environment in the virtual world of work. These behavior patterns become even more important when leaders are remote.
Communicate with me
“Stronger communication around projects, successes, challenges, and strategies on how to deal with these.”
Americas, Gen X, Individual Contributor
“Better assignment of tasks so today’s tasks are clear to understand.” Nordic, Gen Z, Individual Contributor
Give me the resources I need to do my job
“A complete explanation of my job and responsibilities." East Asia, Boomer, Individual Contributor
“Listen …really listen …to our difficulties and resolve them.” Americas, Gen Y, Individual Contributor
Grant me the authority to make decisions about my work
“Allow me the freedom to do my job.” Oceania, Gen Z, Individual Contributor
Include me decisions that affect my work
“Be inclusive in all decisions and activities.” South Asia, Gen X Manager
Solicit my ideas and opinions
“Make it safe to voice opinions and concerns.” Americas, Gen X Manager
“Give importance to our ideas, our suggestions and should implement them to see if the organization benefits.”
Nordics, Gen X, Individual Contributor
Give me feedback
“Give me more feedback on the job I do.” Nordics, Gen X Individual Contributor
How do we know we are valued for who we are at work? When we can authentically be ourselves. When we think it’s safe to take risks. When our co-workers and managers respect and care about us as individuals. And when there is an environment of trust. When we are able to bring our differences to work and those differences are valued, that’s when we can contribute our personal best.
A growing body of social psychology research reveals that we as human beings are highly attuned to the social signals others give us regarding our value in the workplace. Even when remote, we monitor and track the quality of our relationships, and when we sense disapproval, rejection or invisibility, we experience negative emotions and a loss of self-esteem. In the remote world of work, it’s critically important that leaders pay attention to employees’ frame of mind — by improving the quality of relationships; reinforcing the value of individual contributions; and listening for signs of anxiety, isolation or burnout.
Companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield offer a light and agile way for employees to express how they are feeling. Employees who subscribe to the company insurance programs are encouraged to graph their moods on an app that allows them to drag a slider from a smiling face to a frowning one. Whether it’s by leveraging a mood meter, employing emojis, or using good old-fashioned listening skills, leader expressions of care and concern have a substantive impact on feelings of belonging for virtual employees.
Various video and social messaging tools make it easy to recognize individuals, express appreciation, and offer encouragement to remote colleagues. Zapier, a small workflow automation company, randomly pairs employees each week for short informal “get to know you video calls.” On Fridays, employees post summaries of their work for their colleagues to digest. And Zapier tradition makes it safe for workers to add personal touches like family photos to their posts. These rituals increase the quality of virtualized human interactions, while also recognizing and making public an individual’s contributions and achievements.
When leaders are able to create a culture of belonging, the feelings can be transformative for employees and organizations as a whole. In our study, employees who work remotely report that fostering a sense of belonging would significantly increase their personal motivation, commitment, pride, emotional and physical well-being, and overall engagement. Respondents also believe that the feelings of belonging would not only lead to greater innovation but increased productivity.
While working virtually is not new, before the pandemic, only a small percentage of the world’s workforce teleworked full time. Over half of employees globally were working virtually as needed — in conference rooms, on trains, in airports, at the kitchen table late at night. Now, suddenly, leaders and employees alike are trying to figure out how to work from home full-time.
While work routines may feel totally upended for many of us, our respondents tell us that in reality, much remains the same in the virtual world as it did in the physical world, especially when it comes to feelings of belonging. It is about feeling welcome, connected, included, and valued. Creating and maintaining a warm and welcoming workplace is vital for individual and organizational performance, regardless of location.