Happier at Work: how to build a sense of belonging

Learn how to build a sense of belonging at work and support employee retention. Discover the key elements of effective manager-employee conversations.

Happier at Work: how to build a sense of belonging

Why conversations are the common denominator

There’s now mountains of research to corroborate what many of us have known for a long time: people need to feel a sense of belonging in order to reach their full potential at work. Not only that, this inherent need to belong has a huge impact in retention terms, too. McKinsey’s Great Attrition Survey (2022) reveals that more than half (51%) of employees who left their jobs in the previous six months lacked a sense of belonging at work.

But what exactly does it mean to belong at work and more importantly, what can managers do to support this?  

Our Founder & CEO, Anna Rasmussen, recently spoke to Aoife O’Brien about this very topic on the Happier at Work podcast - and it made for a great conversation. Anna began by referencing the link between belonging and motivation, before going on to explain why belonging is a relative term that takes on a different meaning for every employee (we’ll come back to that shortly).  

So what core elements drive a sense of belonging at work? Data derived from the OpenBlend platform identifies three key criteria:

1) Alignment with company vision 

On a macro level, employees consistently cite the need to understand their organisation’s strategic vision so that they can see how they are contributing to the bigger picture. Commenting on this during the podcast, Anna said: “Our data tells us time and time again that people want - and need - to feel part of something bigger. As humans, we absolutely need that sense of purpose in order to stay motivated.”

It’s a point also emphasised in Dan Pink’s critically acclaimed book, Drive. People, he says, become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don’t understand, or can’t invest in, the bigger picture. In other words, if employees can’t see the value in what they’re doing or working towards, their work becomes meaningless. 

The good news? While it may be a big problem, it’s also a (relatively) easy fix if managers can help their employees see how their goals are tied to those of the wider organisation. Another key method relates to CSR. By enabling - and encouraging - employees to use their skills to support local charities or to help in the community, companies can create a key opportunity to build purpose into the employee’s working life while also building a sense of pride in their employer - and that, says Anna, “feeds directly into our sense of belonging.”

2) Team = trust!

We’ve all been there at one time or another. The job where team members compete, rather than collaborate, with one another. The boss who prioritised their own progression over that of their employees. The colleague who talked about you behind your back. 

The point is that this version of a ‘team’ is anything but. An effective team, by stark contrast, is a group of people who trust and support one another. A thriving, albeit small, community that encourages its members, enables them, sees them working towards the same goals, and embodies characteristics not dissimilar to that of a family.

Anna touched on the criticality of effective teams throughout the podcast and reaffirmed that, without them, there could be no sense of belonging at work - and by extension, no high performance either. 

It’s a point further emphasised by this quote in the Harvard Business Review: ‘Social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA’. This is not something that, as humans, we have control over - and it’s only when we think about it in these terms that we fully appreciate the monumental importance of building trust and psychological safety at work. 

3) The importance of individual 

In some ways, this ties back to our first point. 

Talking about the key factors that support an individual sense of belonging, Anna cited ‘feeling involved’, ‘knowing that their role is important’, and ‘being perceived as hard to replace’ as the third piece of the puzzle: “Our data shows that people want to feel needed, essentially. We want to feel as though delivery isn’t complete - or can’t be completed - without our input.”

But that’s only the holistic view because, actually, every person will interpret what it means to belong in a different way. Why? Because we’re all individuals with unique needs, wants, and personal circumstances. We are motivated by different things. We have different ideas of what we want our manager to be. All of these nuances, plentiful as they may be, need to be understood and catered to if we are to build an inclusive workplace that enables everyone to feel a sense of belonging. 

Conversations: the common denominator

Underpinning each of these elements is, of course, one common denominator: effective manager-employee conversations. 

Not surprisingly, managers are by far the biggest influencer here - but there’s a problem: despite 74% agreeing that employee wellbeing is their responsibility, as many as 69% of managers are uncomfortable talking to their employees. “Managers, says Anna, are willing to take on the responsibility, they just don’t know how to navigate it - and that’s where the prime opportunity lies.” 

So how can managers turn this good intent into positive outcomes?  

What we need to do is upskill managers in how to have broad and effective 1:1s with their employees - conversations that focus as much on wellbeing, motivation, and development, as they do goal-setting and performance. As part of this, managers require soft skills development so they can optimise these conversations and not only get to know each of their direct reports, but come to understand what they, as individuals, need and want in order to belong at work. 

There’s work to be done, yes, but if we create the right culture, apply the right formula, and provide the right tools, organisations will not only enable people to feel part of something but create the tangible performance gains that come with that. 

To learn more about the role of conversations in building a sense of belonging at work, listen to the full podcast on Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube

To find out more about OpenBlend, or to start your journey to effective 1:1s, get in touch with our team.

Browse the latest resources