Creating a sense of genuine belonging in the workplace

It takes more than words, webinars and holiday observances. True inclusion requires long-term investment—and better storytelling.

By Robby Brumberg      @robbybrumberg      
Creating a sense of belonging

When’s the last time you felt like you didn’t belong?

You might be surprised how many employees experience that queasy, anxious feeling of unease every time they clock in. What can you do to combat such an untenable situation?

At Ragan’s May 19 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion virtual conference, speakers covered a multitude of DE&I topics, including a dive into the core concept of belonging. It seems like a basic, bare-bones idea, but do your employees feel welcome at work? According to Amrit Nijjar, a U.K.-based inclusion expert, belonging is about feeling relaxed, confident and hopeful. It’s about feeling free to speak your mind and be your true self. True belonging “builds confidence, which ties directly to ability and productivity,” she says.

Nijjar encouraged attendees to think about times they felt like they didn’t quite fit or feel fully accepted. How did that make you feel, and how did such feelings affect your performance?

Before taking strides to address DE&I deficiencies, Nijjar offered a few essential reminders to establish a strategic framework.

Diversity is being asked to the dance, inclusion is being asked to dance. “Belonging is dancing to your own song,” she says. In this case, it takes all three to truly tango. Diversity alone won’t cure what ails your organization. To make meaningful, lasting progress, you must build a culture that rewards inclusion and fosters genuine belonging.

There’s more that joins us than divides us. What are those ties that bind within your unique workforce? Use those commonalities and shared aims to create cohesion and esprit de corps.

We all have a story to tell. Frequently ask employees questions to uncover hobbies, passions, preferences and interests.

To build an inclusive culture that ensures people feel like they belong, Nijjar says five elements are essential.

  • It must start at the top. Take steps to humanize your leaders. Nijjar notes that if bosses are transparent, real and open to sharing personal stories, it signals to others that it’s OK to follow suit.
  • Establish your DE&I ambitions and objectives. Limit your scope to what you reasonably can accomplish. Which slice of the DE&I pie are you best suited to handle?
  • Be prepared to invest long-term. Improving organizational DE&I is marathon, not a sprint toward quick-hit goals.
  • Be genuine (close the say-do gap). If your actions don’t match the words you tweet, your initiatives will quickly lose all credibility.
  • Choose progress over perfection. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn along the way,” Nijjar says.

Helping people find their ‘why?’ at work

Becky Graebe, Dynamic Signal’s senior director of communication strategy, also spoke about creating a sense of workplace belonging. She offered these suggestions.

A culture of belonging is about trust, acceptance and honoring people’s stories. “People will tell their stories if they trust you and you create space for them to share,” Graebe says. She mentions a former colleague who began meetings with the comforting disclaimer: “I honor all experiences in this room.” The pandemic-era equivalent, I suppose, would be honoring all experiences on this Zoom.

Where are the stories being told in your organization? In meetings, on Slack, at town halls, on the intranet? Wherever this employee chatter is taking place, communicators should proactively surface these stories and share them frequently. “Stories always trump narratives,” Graebe says.

What are you doing to encourage and facilitate employee stories? It doesn’t have to be a novel. Sometimes just a photo and caption will suffice. One tip is to create a template with a handful of “get-to-know-you” questions—which you can either email or host on Google Forms—to streamline the process.

Make space for the giggles. DE&I doesn’t have to be a somber slog. Don’t forget humor and levity at the workplace. “There’s commonality in humor,” Graebe says.

Celebrate our moment of raw, real experiences. Authenticity breeds credibility. Graebe recalls a colleague’s child bursting into a Zoom conference to loudly pose a burning question about the status of some Pop-Tarts. Those are moments to embrace and savor (especially if the Pop-Tarts in question are frosted blueberry).

Employees have more impact than ever at organizations. Are you treating them as such?

Everyone and every brand is transforming right now. Use this moment to make profound, lasting change for the better. It’s the perfect moment for a hard reset or strategy shift.

We (all of us) are responsible for DE&I progress. If it’s just “one person’s job,” your DE&I efforts will likely fail.

Employees experience belonging through managers and direct peers. “If they’re not welcoming, employees won’t feel a sense of belonging,” Graebe says. She closed with some easy ways to boost corporate inclusivity:

  • Share meeting agendas ahead of time.
  • Create calendar prompts to check in on employees.
  • Offer a variety of feedback options to ensure all voices are heard.
  • Tap into employee resource groups and “listening circles.”
  • Make it easy to send and complete short Q&As to create a feedback dragnet.

Check here for more upcoming Ragan events, conferences and opportunities to learn.