Belonging: Dancing like no one’s watching

What your people need right now: Bounce, Boundaries and Belonging, part three.

Feeling like you belong is important to anyone's workplace success and wellbeing, but how can you help instill this among your staff? Amazing If's Sarah Ellis breaks down what belonging is, and what you can you do to bring more belonging into the way we work.

Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching. Daniele Fiandaca, Utopia co-founder, first shared this with me and it’s a description that’s really stuck in my mind. Belonging at work is not a new challenge but, like most things, the nature of what it means and how to achieve it has been impacted by lockdown.

An article in The Telegraph in 2018 described our work environment as 'a landscape of loneliness'. Research by Relate showed that around 42% of people do not have a close friend at work and recently Totaljobs found that 60% of UK employees feel lonely at work.

The benefits of belonging are significant for both individuals and organisations. When you can be yourself at work you feel 'psychologically safe'. And feeling comfortable means you can take more risks, speak out and solve problems better.

Amy Edmondson’s research has demonstrated that it’s the teams that have the highest levels of psychological safety that perform the best. Companies also collectively perform better when their people feel a strong sense of belonging as they benefit from increases in job performance (by as much as 56%), reduction in sickness (75%) and a significantly higher employer promote score (how willing someone is to recommend their company to others is 167% higher when someone feels like they belong).

We might assume that our current way of working, pre-dominantly at home, makes achieving a sense of belonging an even tougher ask for everyone, but not necessarily. You can be surrounded by people in an open plan office and feel lonely. You can be in a building of thousands and have no one you would describe as a friend. I’ve been inspired by the agility and innovation this tough time has sparked across so many businesses and instead of barriers to belonging this time could present us all with an opportunity to bring more belonging into the way we work.

Too often, we think of work as an ‘or’ environment that is full of trade off’s and choices. Perhaps now is the time to prioritise an ‘and’ environment to see what action it inspires. Below I’ve suggested three 'And Actions' that focus on bringing more belonging into our work lives.

Belonging 'And Actions'

Colleagues AND friends

Certainly, in the early years of my career friendships at work were frowned upon, seen as detrimental to productivity and even unprofessional. However, when Margaret Heffernan was researching her book Unchartered, how to map the future together, CEO’s shared with her that one of the most critical aspects of successfully managing a crisis was the friendships they had at work. Gallup, the performance management company who conduct many of the world’s biggest engagement surveys include a specific question that asks: do you have a best friend at work? This is not a 'nice-to-have', the question is there because positive responses have been found to directly relate to more engaged customers, colleagues and higher profitability. Despite this when speaking to a group of rising leaders Heffernan found that they had few or no friends, friendships had faded and time to think was rare.

We form friendships by spending time with people in unstructured ways. By discussing a shared interest, work or otherwise. The lockdown has seen teams learn to socialise in new ways. Ones where we’re not worried about catching a train or whether someone is having a G & T or a cup of tea. And where it doesn’t matter if your toddler turns up to show you a snail (true story!). As individuals we need to protect and prioritise time to build friendships at work and leaders can help support by giving people the permission and gentle push they might need to make it happen.

And Action 1

Think about how your friendships at work have been impacted by lockdown. We can’t replicate how we were spending time together but we can commit to maintaining or even increasing the amount of time we spend together. I’ve heard lots of example of virtual podcast clubs, wine-tasting and probably my personal favourite the 'it’s all a bit s**t chat' I have every other week with a group of women I worked and became friends with when volunteering a couple of years ago.

Technology AND talking

Technology is often cited as the biggest barrier to belonging. There are so many platforms that promise to make our lives quicker, easier, more efficient. And yet we’re now all too familiar with the fatigue that can set in after the 5th zoom call of a day, or the overwhelm of seeing 100+ messages on a work whats app chat. Communication might be easier than ever before but that isn’t the same as a feeling a sense of connection with the people we work with.

Technology and workplace loneliness do not need to be competing forces. We have to figure out how to use technology as a bridge to human connection. And just because we have the technology we don’t need to use it. A study by Harvard Business Review found that one face-to-face conversation is more successful than 34 emails exchanged back and forth. We need to take ownership for our technology and design personal operating systems that mean we are making active choices about where and when we use it to make our working lives better.

And Action 2

Do an audit of your tech vs. talk across your week and to ask yourself if you were optimising for building belonging what might you change? For example, in our business, Amazing If, we use Microsoft Teams and if a message thread reaches more than 5 back and forth chats we make a commitment to pick up the phone. And a year ago after reading Bruce Daisley’s Joy of Work 18 months ago I turned off all my notifications, an example of where technology was hindering rather than helping me.

Curiosity AND connections

I’m an introvert and find making new friends and connections energy sapping, though once I make a friend, work or otherwise they can never get rid of me! In my experience the best way to build new connections (which then leads to belonging) is to follow my curiosity. And curiosity has the advantage of being contagious, you find one person who is interested in the same thing as you and it leads to another and so on. In her research on ‘the business case for curiosity’ researcher Francesca Gino found that curiosity inspires employees to develop more trusting and collaborative relationships with colleagues. Too often curiosity is side-lined in favour of to do lists full of tasks. However, curiosity is something that individuals can take control of and practice intentionally and leaders can promote curiosity by being inquisitive themselves. Research has also found that curious people often end up being star performers thanks to their diverse networks and the fact they create and nurture ties at work.

And Action 3

Think about your answer to these three questions. What one idea, person and place are your curious to learn more about? Use this as a starting point to spark your curiosity and think about who you might talk to, in order to begin exploring.

I hope you found these series of blogs on bounce, boundaries and belonging useful. If you’d like to learn more about the work that we do at Amazing If where our mission is to make careers better for everyone please get in touch.

About Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is the co-author of the No.1 The Sunday Times business bestseller The Squiggly Career and host of the UK’s no.1 careers podcast: Squiggly Careers. She is the co-founder of Amazing If, a business with a mission to make work better for everyone and was a previous Chair of Judges for the IPA CPD Gold Awards.

Related articles by Sarah Ellis: "What your people need right now - Bounce, Boundaries and Belonging":

Last updated 21 September 2020