24 August 2020

Belonging, diversity and innovation in the workplace

Two people looking happy and content to be in work environment

A sense of belonging is a fundamental human need, just like food or shelter.

As we move towards a future where our physical place of work is increasingly scattered, creating a sense of belonging can seem challenging. But without it individuals lack motivation, confidence, purpose, even creativity. It is therefore vital that HR work harder than ever to create a sense of belonging to engage employees, promote diversity and boost innovation.

Belonging and innovation

An employee’s connection to work and the workplace comes from a sense of belonging. It is often forgotten that belonging is ranked third in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the fundamental human needs that drive us and must be met for human satisfaction and fulfillment. Individuals need to feel that they fit in and will go to incredible lengths to do so. At work we feel engaged if work is interesting. But we also feel engaged if we feel connected to co-workers. It’s this shared sense of belonging that gives work meaning and unlocks employees full potential.

As companies start to strategize for the post pandemic workplace and shift from survival to recovery and long term resilience, any redesign must ensure the new employee experience (EX) promotes a sense of belonging. It is a business imperative. A global PwC survey, last month reported that 63% of CFOs have prioritised the need to generate revenue through innovation and the refreshing (or changing) of their product and services mix.  But innovation has to come from within. So logically the environment within a company must be one that nurtures innovation through creativity and collaboration. Belonging is often overlooked when HR is looking to create such an environment.

Creating a sense of employee belonging is important to innovation as it promotes expression of diversity and diverse ideas. Research has shown that incorporating diverse viewpoints results in better, more creative, innovative ideas and decision-making. However, if a diverse set of employees is hired but there hasn’t been an investment in creating a sense of belonging, many of those employees will not feel comfortable or psychologically safe enough to express their ideas. As a recent Catalyst report highlighted, a feeling of belonging is correlated to higher creativity and a higher likelihood of employees to speak up and contribute.

Furthermore employees who do not feel that they belong, will be ‘on guard’, constantly feeling they need to ‘assimilate’. This takes mental energy that isn’t spent on the work itself. By creating a culture of belonging where employees feel truly valued for their personal differences and do not feel the need to downplay their identities, teams have more headspace and more confidence to be more innovative, and more successful.

Belonging and recruitment

A LinkedIn study  identified that creating a sense of belonging in the workplace directly increases employee retention and hiring. When an employee feels they belong they want to stay with the company. They also share that sense of belonging with their communities, which in turn can further attract more diverse talent.

So what prevents a sense of belonging and how do we create it? Primarily it comes from a lack of multicultural and diverse company cultural norms. Company cultural norms that define a culture include communication styles, language patterns, approaches to conflict resolution, appearances, and even the ways people socialise. It is the role of HR to ensure they reflect the company but are also highly inclusive considering all the diverse individuals in the company every single day across company structures, processes and events. When corporate norms are too narrow, they become non inclusive, employees fall outside of them and will not feel they ‘belong’. This erodes trust, engagement, productivity and ultimately innovation.

Belonging and Working From Home (WFH)

With the acknowledged increase in WFH, the PwC survey also reported that 52% of CFOs plan to make remote work a permanent option where possible, there is a fear that it will be even harder to create a sense of belonging. But while support can be more challenging remotely, creating a sense of belonging does not have to be. For as explained above, belonging is not linked to physical places but corporate norms and they can be communicated anywhere. In fact there is even an argument to say that working from home, (WFH) can actually increase diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging

This is as remote work can promote more inclusive norms. Flexible schedules can allow those who have caregiving responsibilities the opportunity to also further their careers. WFH can create a more comfortable, less discriminatory environment for people with disabilities and can reduce bias and discrimiantion based on appearance. The remote environment can feel less intimidating and judgemental to many, dismantling the subtle structures that block employees from being themselves at work. WHF also reduces “location bias” which can exclude people who live outside big cities, affecting talents from underrepresented backgrounds and alienating people who due to location, responsibilities, or preferences, can not socialise near the office after work.

Of course when everyone is virtual there is more balance of opportunity, this is not necessarily always going to be the case. In the future there will be situations where some employees are in the workplace and some are remote. But if the remote transition is handled with inclusion in mind, new hires can come into a workplace where employees are encouraged to be who they are, supported by an HR department who has acknowledged and sensitively upholds diverse corporate norms for teams spread across both virtual and work spaces.

So, as your organization begins to create it’s strategy for a post-pandemic work environment, it is worth thinking about belonging as a centering concept. It can provide a roadmap to help HR ensure workers feel both physically and psychologically safe and free to be their most creative, engaged, motivated and innovative-selves.

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Katherine Templar Lewis

Katherine Templar Lewis spends her time as a Futurist, science communicator and consultant. She has travelled the globe speaking on new technology and its impact on individuals and society and has appeared on range of media as a science and technology expert including BBC, Sky News, Radio 4, NBC and the Today Show. She is a contributor to a range of media and is a guest blogger on The Huffington Post and is a believer in building a better future with human first technology.

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