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Employees Want to Feel a Sense of Belonging at Work. Here's How Leaders Can Make That Possible. New evidence shows workplace belonging enhances the employee experience and organizational health. Here's why — and what leaders can do to make their employees feel like they belong.

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More than just salary and job security, today's employees want to feel a sense of belonging at work. Intuitively, this makes good sense since work is an important aspect of human life. Work is not just a vehicle for performance, productivity and pay, although everyone deserves to be paid equitably. Work also provides employees with opportunities to find purpose, experience accomplishment, achieve success and build positive connections with others, to name a few benefits. And there's plenty of time for all of this since the average American spends approximately 38.7 hours per week working and Statistica reports that the U.S. workforce clocks about 3.9 billion hours working per month.

Related: The 3 Pillars Your Company Needs to Cultivate a Culture of Belonging

On workplace belonging

Workplace belonging refers to symmetry between employees' personal values and those of the employing organization, including one's ability to express important aspects of self at work, according to experts. Workplace belonging reflects the degree to which employees feel accepted, respected, included, valued, and supported by others in the work environment. Coqual, a global non-profit think tank, released a recent report explaining workplace belonging as feeling seen for one's contributions to the team or organization, purposefully connected to coworkers, supported in one's work, and proud of the employing organization's vision, mission, and values.

In my consulting work with major corporations and highly-ranked colleges and universities in the U.S., staff members have described workplace belonging as "knowing that you matter to someone at work," "feeling affirmed that you play an important role on the team," "trusting that you will be supported to do the job for which you're hired," "feeling comfortable and safe being your true self" and "being celebrated for a job well done," to quote sentiments that reflect many voices. In our firm's experience working with many leading organizations, this does not happen automatically. Rather, these conditions are cultivated systematically for many, if not all, employees when leaders do the "good work" of creating a culture of belonging.

A culture of belonging refers to a comprehensive constellation of policies, programs, practices and procedures that work together to create healthy, inclusive and equitable work environments. This requires moving beyond addressing individual needs or jump-starting "one-off" diversity events to identifying evidence-based best practices for tackling systemic inequities, rewarding incremental progress and adapting work structures, benefits and processes accordingly. To build a culture of belonging, leaders must demonstrate a clear, unapologetic commitment to the core (i.e., team) and the collective (i.e., organization).

In our ongoing research on workplace belonging, we've found that employees report a greater sense of belonging when they are aligned and "in sync" with their place of employment. They feel aligned with their organization when they understand its mission, core values and culture. That includes the opportunity to perceive their own values as aligned with those of the organization, to believe that their unique qualities are respected by colleagues and supervisors and to be recognized as an important contributor to the bottom line.

Related: How to Lessen Loneliness and Boost Belonging at Work

On what works

CEOs, entrepreneurs and other business leaders can play a pivotal role in this regard by clearly communicating the agency's vision, mission and core values in written and oral form. Communications should enumerate company values with vivid examples of how they drive strategic actions, investments, and decisions. Additionally, leaders would do well to draw bright lines of connection between a team's scope of work or recent accomplishments of an individual team member to the company's overall vision, mission, and key performance indicators (KPIs). By affirming that each plays a part in achieving larger objectives, leaders help unify teams around shared goals and employees pick up cues suggesting that they matter, they're essential and belong at work.

Our survey of over 2,000 workplaces suggests other clear, actionable steps that business leaders can take to build a culture of belonging. For example, several micro-actions lead to measurable gains in workplace belonging: knowing a staff member's name and saying it correctly, welcoming newcomers to the team/agency publicly and celebrating their unique talents, as well as demonstrating care and concern for employees through routine check-ins, to name a few.

Purposeful design of a culture of workplace belonging demands more than micro-actions, however. Even more compelling are data demonstrating the impact of macro-actions, largely enacted by leaders and their executive teams. For instance, companies with higher-than-average belonging scores are more likely to have flextime and telework options, flexible educational and parental leave policies, well-designed employee resource groups (ERGs), wellness programs, equitable salaries and competitive benefits. Formulating policies or organization-wide practices that provide employees with what they need as human beings to do their job well signals to staff that employers care about them and their needs (inside and outside of work), which leads to feeling like they matter and belong.

Related: Employee Experience Matters More Than Ever. Here's How to Elevate It.

Indeed, belonging matters. A growing line of research shows that when employees feel like they belong at work, they experience higher energy, greater focus, deeper engagement and optimized productivity. They're also more likely to stay, which helps staff retention. Feeling a sense of belonging at work is not just good for employees, although that's true and important. It's also great for business, giving organizations a competitive advantage as it catalyzes innovation, fuels creativity and ensures success.

Terrell Strayhorn, PhD

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Professor at Virginia Union University; CEO of Do Good Work Consulting

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is Professor of Education and Psychology at Virginia Union University. Author of 12 books and over 200 peer-reviewed articles and academic reports, Strayhorn is a leading DEI expert and owns a consulting firm.

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