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Belonging: the Antidote to Feeling Distant in a Remote Workplace

When our need to belong is satisfied, our worries vanish, and we can focus on working with others.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 19, 2022

The foundation of a strong organization is built on human connection. People don't just want to be part of a team – they want to belong. Creating an environment that honors humanity, not just high performance, is vital for workplace success.

Belonging is a fundamental part of being human: We need each other to thrive. It makes us feel safe, more trustful, and collaborative. We are social animals and need to be connected to others.

Our ancestors deeply understood the need to belong. They didn't need scientists to prove to them why. It was intuitive – a value that was passed from one generation to the other.

Finally, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to appreciate the importance of belonging. Discuss what belonging means with your team. Here's why it matters and how it makes a difference.

You belong here. Whakapapa.

Whakapapa is a Maori idea that embodies our universal human need to belong. It represents a powerful spiritual belief - that each of us is part of an unbroken and unbreakable chain of people who share a sacred identity and culture.

Over the past decade, Owen Eastwood has become one of the world's most in-demand performance coaches. Elite teams and organizations had partnered with him to create a deeper sense of belonging – from the England football team and the Scotland rugby squad to the Royal Ballet School and the Command Group of NATO.

Whakapapa is the starting point of Eastwood's work with teams and leaders. It unlocks a sense of identity. This approach works for both established and new teams, extracting meaning from their legacy or shaping a more intentional future, respectively.

Reviewing human evolution, it feels logical that humans care about their tribe and their place in it. Relying on each other was a sound survival strategy. Isolation or rejection could equal premature death.

As Eastwood wrote on Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness, "Each of us are part of an unbreakable chain of people going back and forward in time. Back to our first ancestor at the beginning of time and into the future of the end of time. Each of us in this chain of people have our arms interlocked with those on either side of us. We are unbreakable. Together, Immortal."

When we experience a sense of belonging, our body activates the happy hormones, promoting happiness, pleasure, and even love. This thus increases trust, connection, and collaboration.

We are hardwired to connect with other human beings. Social isolation evokes cravings similar to hunger. Similar studies located social exclusion in the same brain region where we experience physical pain.

Owen's unique approach includes: finding your group's identity story, envisioning future success, sharing ownership with others, understanding the 'silent dance' that plays out in groups, setting the conditions to unleash talent, and converting our uniqueness into a competitive advantage.

Even introverts need to belong. We all share this impulse to be accepted by our tribe. We fear rejection and isolation – alone, we are most prone to fail.

Amy Edmonson explains in Fearless Organizations, "As humans, we are very good at reading cues; we are incredibly attentive to interpersonal phenomena." Feeling rejected by our social system is like dying.

Belonging is a feeling that results from being recognized and appreciated by fellow human beings. It makes our life more meaningful. When you are accepted by your team, you don't have to pretend to be someone else.

Belonging is about being understood, known by others, and knowing others.

Why Belonging Matters for Your Team

Are we connected? Belonging is critical for our survival. Consciously or not, we are always asking this question. We are at ease when we feel we belong.

A lack of in-person interaction has made many remote workers feel separated from their teams and culture. A sense of belonging helps build a bridge and bring people together despite the distance.

When you belong, you don't need to be a different person at work. You can speak freely without fearing retribution. You actually enjoy working with your colleagues. Work is not just a job, but an enjoyable experience.

Most importantly, a strong sense of belonging increases engagement and reduces turnover by 50%.

Great teams leverage the power of belonging. Belonging provides shared purpose, values, and norms that shape the team behavior. Eastwood says that the ability to form groups is an essential human trait:

"Whakapapa points a finger at us and tells us, you will not be judged by your money or celebrity or sense of self pride . . . you will be judged by what you did for our tribe.

When the sun is shining on us, we must be guardians of our tribe and each other."

Leaders tend to underestimate the power of belonging. However, we know that strong personal connections build healthy teams. High belonging is linked to a 56% increase in job performance, better business results, and a healthier workplace culture.

Do you feel comfortable being vulnerable with your colleagues? Do you feel safe to ask for help or offer help? Belonging is a state that's never permanently achieved. Over time, the interactions make us feel supported and welcomed as human beings.

Intimacy, vulnerability, and contribution create belonging.

Brené Brown said it best, "A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break."

Who can you count on?

Traditionally, it was easier for collocated team members to build belonging. Small in-person interactions, such as having lunch together, chatting over coffee, or company events, help people connect with each other. Working remotely has put a halt to these practices – and many teams are suffering.

However, belonging doesn't require physical proximity. You must be more intentional in rebuilding the cues that were lost due to the pandemic.

Alex Pentland from MIT identifies three essential qualities to increase belonging:

Energy: people invest passion in and dedication to the work the team does

Individualization: team members feel treated as unique and valued

Future Orientation: the team interactions signal that collaboration and relationships will continue

The challenge is how your team can develop these three areas without being together in person.

How to Build Belonging in Your Remote Team

Use the following approaches to build a strong sense of belonging and connection among your team members.

1. Be welcoming:

Belonging works both ways. Whether you are a team leader or manager, make others feel welcomed. Start by making it easier to join.

At Warby Parker, onboarding begins at day zero. A team member reaches out to the recent hire to walk them through the basics and answer any pre-orientation questions. The new employee also receives a packet at their home with Warby Parker's history, values, and culture so they can get acquainted before they start.

2. Ask for help:

Rather than a weakness, asking for help is a reminder that together we are unbreakable. Research shows that seeking advice makes you feel more competent, not less. Ask for help.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, IBM, and Estee Lauder, among others, leverage the power to pay it forward. They practice the Reciprocity Ring. This method, developed by Cheryl and Wayne Baker, consists of a facilitated group whose members feel free to ask each other for help. From raising money for laboratory instruments to finding their biological parents, everyone asks for and receives help. It's a give and take.

3. Be intentional about belonging:

Building meaningful connections on a personal level require intentionality, especially in a remote environment. Conduct regular temperature checks to see how team members are doing. You can do this with the whole team and also have one-to-ones.

Make room for small talk and personal things. Carve out time to slack off at the beginning of a meeting. Consider using icebreakers, especially in long video calls. Design activities to get to know your team members better ¬– from how they like to participate in meetings to how they want to be treated.  

4. Express gratitude:

The lack of recognition can make remote teams feel more isolated. Most people forget basic etiquette like saying "thank you." In a virtual setting, it's easier to take things for granted.

Belonging and appreciation go hand in hand. According to a LinkedIn study, 59% of professionals believe that being recognized at work is the largest factor to creating a sense of belonging. Watch out for the "out of sight, out of mind" bias. Be more intentional about providing informal feedback and appreciation to those who are not in the office.

5. Connect virtual and physical worlds:

The notion of remote creates unnecessary seclusion. That people are not in the same room doesn't mean they should feel distant. When everything is digital – how we interact, communicate, and collaborate –  a physical package can create a lasting impact.

Handwritten notes, company swag, or a book don't go unnoticed in a digital world. Dropbox sends new team members a box with ingredients and recipes to cook cupcakes – one of its core values is represented by a smiling cupcake. People enjoy a physical experience – cooking and eating cupcakes – but can also share videos and pictures of it with their remote colleagues.

The Power of Belonging

When our need to belong is satisfied, our worries vanish and we can focus on working with others. We can be ourselves. We embrace the awkwardness. Most importantly, we are willing to take risks because our bond with our colleagues is unbreakable.

Belonging is the first level toward building psychological safety. When we feel we are seen, welcomed, and accepted by our colleagues, it becomes easier to participate and share our ideas without fear of judgment or retribution.

In my upcoming book, I dedicate one of the five chapters, providing more insights and concrete tools and activities to help teams become immortal, together. Sign up to be the first to know when Remote, Not Distant is out.

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