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A sense of belonging in the workplace: Does it exist?

We all belong to something: a country, a university course, a sports centre, a neighbourhood or community. It is what both unites and differentiates us. You’d be surprised at how many things we are and how many things we are not. It is all about the sense of belonging. But…

What is a sense of belonging?

The term “sense of belonging” or “belongingness” in psychology is defined as the feeling of connection, attunement, comfort and acceptance that we experience within a group. It sounds simple, but if we dig a little deeper, we will discover that this feeling dates back thousands of years, is closely linked to survival and could almost be called natural instinct.

In early human groups, survival depended to a large extent on collaboration and mutual support. To be excluded from a group meant death. In this context, developing a sense of belonging to the tribe or community was fundamental for ensuring protection, access to resources and successful reproduction. 

Over time, this feeling has evolved into something different: patriotism, cultural identity, religious affiliation, being part of a social or professional group, to name but a few. And even though we will not die today if we are not given our share of the kill, the need to belong is still crucially important today.

The sense of belonging in a company: far beyond salary and corporate culture

A sense of belonging in a company: far beyond salary and corporate culture

In today’s context, a workforce is the equivalent to what used to be our hunting tribe, it is our group of people, which means a Sense of Belonging in our workplace is a valid term. However, as the concept has previously lacked a clear definition, many companies have confused it with general well-being or camaraderie, creating a pretty façade to hide the problem with a few team building activites. But this is not enough.

You might be surprised to learn how many well-paid jobs with good working conditions and great interpersonal relationships still leave employees feeling totally disconnected from their employer. In fact, research on the subject by Coqual, the US independent think tank, shows that around 40% of workers have never experienced a sense of belonging within their company. The figures for our country will be similar.

So what does a Sense of Belonging at work really depend on?

Identifying with the company’s values: A relationship between a company and its employees is not disimilar from any relationship between people. Love and friendships arise spontaneously when there is a certain affinity of interests and inclinations, when life is seen in a similar way. The same thing happens with work.

Let’s imagine I work for a tobacco factory, I don’t smoke and I deeply detest the need to encourage the creation of addictions in society. I am hardly going to feel comfortable with what I do, and will probably only be working there purely out of economic necessity. Now let’s imagine someone who is passionate about cars and motorbikes and works in the automotive sector. They will be driven by something more than just economic neccessity. Although it sounds cliché or even a bit sentimental, in order to develop or enhance a sense of belonging, as an employee, I must, to a certain extent, identify with the values of my company and the goods it produces.

As a Human Resources professional, might say “OK, but I have no control over that! Obviously, you cannot control the reasons why candidates accept your job offer, but it is up to you to get to know people better during the selection process: to look not only at their education, the training courses they have completed and the skills they have, but also at their values and what is important to them. And then make the hiring decision wisely.

Fulfilment and professional growth: all jobs, even the most creative ones, will include some monotonous tasks. But if all working time is limited to performing boring and repetitive tasks, even those employees with the least amount of interest in getting out of their comfort zone will become weary and despondent. To be challenged, to hone skills, to do new things is essential for everyone, no matter what their job is. It is as true for high-skilled positions, as it is for less knowledge-intensive fields: most employees will aspire to more than just routine. 

Today’s smart companies understand the importance of this fundamental need to become a better professional and a better person. As such, these companies strive to foster a learning environment and create development opportunities for every employee.

We are all the same, we are all different: If we became friends with every person we ever worked with, that would be great, but life’s not like that! However, feeling comfortable and at ease with colleagues is not only posible, but it is also very important We tend to feel comfortable when we feel seen and accepted as we are. It is important to take a person’s character into account. For example, it may not be a good idea to try to involve an introvert in a role or activity that requires a lot of socialising.

Respect, freedom of expression, being able to laugh from time to time, trusting colleagues and also forgiving them for any mistakes is vital for a healthy working environment.

Teamwork matters! This should not to be confused with the previous point. When we talk about teamwork, we are talking about a combination of opinions and contributions. Obeying and executing orders is not the same as proposing, assessing and making decisions together. We all need to feel we are contributing to something bigger. And employees who feel they are part of decision-making processes and who have some level of autonomy in their work feel more empowered and engaged.

Where you come from matters: Did you know that the average Japanese parent spends a maximum of 1 hour per week of their free time with their children?And nobody thinks twice about this, let alone complains. In Japan as in other Asian countries, 90% of the population feels more committed to their company than to their own family. Interestingly, in Asian countries and also some Muslim countries people tend to see themselves first as part of the group and then as individuals, the opposite to the US and other Western countries.

So where does salary fit into the employees’ Sense of Belonging?

Let’s be honest, we all work for money. It sounds brutal, but if anyone tells you otherwise, they are lying. Monetary retribution is the key aspect of labour welfare, but this is not the concept we are dealing with here. Many companies are happy to settle for a purely economic relationship with employees, exchanging knowledge or time for money, regardless of an employees’ values or professional fulfilment. But there are also institutions that despite not offering super attractive salaries, manage, nevertheless, to make their employees feel proud to be part of them. We can therefore definitely say that money can’t buy a Sense of Belonging!

What can HR do to foster employees' sense of belonging?

So what can an HR department do to foster a Sense of Belonging at work?

I think we can all now agree that a Sense of Belonging is something that should not be taken lightly. Nor, as we have seen, is it something that can be easily built. However, if your employees say that they “belong to your company”, it means that you have won them over. It means that your team is with you because they want to be with you.

Obviously, not all the cards are in your hands, but as a good HR professional you should pay attention to where you do have control and that is where you should try to make things flourish. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Try to get to know people. For real. Especially during the different phases of the selection process. Don’t just look at the information on the CV. Qualifications and skills are important, but they should not always be the determining factors. A person with less experience and professional background but who is looking in the same direction as the company can sometimes be the best choice. Remember, where there’s a will there’s a way! A person who is willing and eager is more valuable than someone who simply ticks the right boxes.
  1. Constantly analyse the environment. Try to always be aware of and keep an eye on the small details that occur within a group. If something is not working well, it is easier to fix it in its early stages, before it gets out of hand and snowballs into discontent. There are numerous tools for the comprehensive diagnosis of job satisfaction, or in more modern words, the Employee Net Promoter Score. 
  1. Encourage open communication. Make sure that all employees have a means of communication with the HR department. Although all companies are legally obliged to have a whistleblower mailbox, since February 2023, we should not have to get to this point.
  1. Offer opportunities for professional growth and development. More and more companies are offering training courses as part of their remuneration package. And many candidates, when accepting or rejecting a job offer, consider what benefits the company offers its employees. It is also not difficult to organise, the only recommendation here is not to impose. Try provide questionnaires or ask people openly what types of training they would like.
  1. Create opportunities for colleagues to bond outside of work. This means corporate events or other situations for co-workers to interacts in a natural way, without the need to think or talk about work. It may not seem important, but these small things are proven to help build strong relationships, which in turn makes the feeling of camaraderie and teamwork come naturally.
  1. Acknowledgement and gratitude. Sounds almost like a school moto, doesn’t it? But these are still very relevant today. Saying thank you for a job well done, acknowledging a colleague’s achievements and recognising each others’ efforts is the foundation of a healthy and lasting relationship. At work and beyond.

There are more things you can do, but this is a good place to start. Follow these simple recommendations and rid your company of issues that won’t go away such as high staff turnover, low employee productivity or poor company performance.

Simply put, a Sense of Belonging in the workplace exists. It provides a sense of identity, connection and purpose in the world and is therefore fundamental to psychological and emotional well-being ( cf. Abraham Maslow). And in a world of work it is a win-win situation for everyone.