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4 Ways to Create a Culture of Belonging at Work

Instead of focusing on building community at work, which can sometimes create an inner circle plus a periphery, strive to create a space where every person feels a sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging to a community is what gives so many people purpose and meaning in their lives, and this is no less true in our workplaces. That’s why so many companies strive to create a genuine community — one strong enough to attract and retain star talent over the long term.

The problem is that focusing too narrowly on building a community can overlook whether individuals actually feel like they belong. Or, worse, it may develop a strong inner circle with the rest of the group overlooked and orbiting the periphery.

Given that the epidemic of loneliness is particularly high among Gen Z and Millennial workers, companies that want to retain these valuable employees and help them flourish should strive to create a sense of belonging in the workplace by connecting people to one another.

Why Belonging Matters

Professionals in their 20s are harder to retain because they don’t believe in job security. During the recession, they watched their parents lose jobs and homes, and they experienced the horror of 9/11 — thousands of people going to work and losing their lives — when they were only children. Given these formative experiences, they put a premium on finding meaningful work.

Gen Z and Millennials have left their families and hometowns to pursue job opportunities and are likely to stay single longer, leaving them emotionally unmoored as they start their careers. Without traditional support at home, Gen Z and Millennial workers value belonging and connection in the workplace more than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts.

Creating the culture of belonging that will retain these valuable employees means taking deliberate action, starting with a few simple practices.

1. Allow Vulnerability to Create Safety

Leadership and courage go hand in hand, so managers must demonstrate that it’s OK to be vulnerable in the workplace if they want employees to take risks that might help a company grow. Brené Brown calls vulnerability “the birthplace of connection” because her research links courage and vulnerability so closely that they are mutually dependent.

This means that leaders need to be authentic. When I had a difficult breakup last year, I shared about it — in bounded ways and at appropriate times — with my team. Because I did, the team didn’t have to figure out whether they had done something wrong or wonder if our business was in trouble. Naming and claiming my feelings in the workplace demonstrated trust, and it has given everyone else space to share their own personal challenges in a healthy way. Modeling that making connection is safe allows everyone to belong to a strong community.

2. Schedule Intentional Connections

Instead of hoping that colleagues will spontaneously connect, schedule opportunities for peers and managers to engage in the substantial conversations that make workers feel seen. Go beyond pleasantries: Instead of asking how someone’s day is going, ask them about a project in their personal life they are excited about, or the last time they saw their family. This combats the isolation we all feel after looking at screens all day.

As a leader, you can set the tone by volunteering personal information of your own — be a little vulnerable! Share a personal win or an update on your outside activities. Did you just buy a puppy? How was that visit to see your dad for his birthday last weekend? When you share first, you give others permission to share and, ultimately, be seen.

3. Create a Feedback Loop

Work environments weighted toward negative feedback aren’t as productive as those that value gratitude. When workers receive more positive feedback than negative, they’re happier and perform better. Gen Z places a premium on fairness and was raised on anti-bullying messaging; they’ve been known to leave a workplace after witnessing bullying.

To keep the lines of communication open for positive feedback, dedicate a Slack channel to shout-outs or schedule a weekly ritual where co-workers share praise for the support they receive from one another. At Chewse, we have a weekly practice we call Attitudes of Gratitude, in which we take 20 minutes to share gratitude in person. I consider it the best free benefit we offer. These celebratory events strengthen bonds and help anchor Gen Z and Y to a genuinely positive work environment.

4. Cultivate Caring Managers

One of my company’s core values is “Be direct with kindness.” That’s in part to connect people with the leadership team through honest, kind feedback. Caring can also be modeled by sharing how you are feeling about a project. This builds trust by proving that you can be real with your team — which means they can be real with you.

Because the No. 1 cause of burnout is a perceived lack of leadership and poor direction from management, it’s important to establish a relationship from the beginning. The manager-employee relationship is the highest-value community driver. Employees value good manager behavior even more than salary and workload considerations.

To combat the alienation that employees experience when they’re disconnected from their managers, train your team to view giving feedback as a way of showing care for someone. When issues go unresolved and workers hide problems out of fear, tension builds and we miss opportunities for growth. Meaningful connections emerge when we receive insightful feedback from people who know us well.

Building genuine community is a habit, not an event. At Chewse, our leaders and team members live our values of nurturing community by sharing daily lunches, creating a world where nobody has to eat alone. When we value and participate in the lives of our co-workers through something as simple as a shared meal, we let people know they have a place at the table for years to come.

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