How to Create a Culture of Belonging in the Workplace

Posted in Employee Experience

Updated March 2023

Loneliness – once the sole domain of angst-ridden songs and moody poems – has become a major global crisis. 

It’s worse for your physical health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as the much-quoted statistic goes. And terrible for your mental health too, increasing your risk of depression, dementia, cognitive decline and suicide.

In one of our recent blogs, we exposed the growing loneliness epidemic. Now, we’re continuing our quest to banish workplace loneliness with nine practical ways to help build workplace connection and enhance your people’s employee experience.

The Importance of Human Connection in the Workplace

We spend more than half our waking hours in the workplace, and with the dramatic global increase in single-occupancy households, work might be many people’s only social interaction.

This makes it even more alarming that 37% of us admit to feeling lonely at work.

And this lack of workplace connection hurts everyone, from our employees who are struggling to feel engaged to businesses that feel this lack of engagement and productivity directly in our bottom line.

It’s a fact that, if your people feel lonely, they’re more likely to get sick. Unplanned absence costs an average of $578 per employee per absence day. That adds up quickly and has a knock-on impact on team productivity.

It’s little wonder productivity is plummeting worldwide.

Employees who don’t feel engaged and connected are twice as likely to look for a new job in the next year.

And, with each employee turnover costing up to two times an employee’s annual salary, a poor employee experience leads to costs that most businesses can’t afford to leave to chance.

The best sales associate at Nordstrom brings in 8x more revenue than the average sales associate at competing stores. Apple’s best developer is 9x more productive than average. The best transplant surgeon has 6x better success rate than average. But the best won’t join a sinking ship. How do you quantify that?

Loneliness isn’t only a moral problem. It’s an expensive one too, and HR needs to take action.

What Can Your Business Do To Encourage Connection?

Let’s be clear: Your employees want to form quality workplace connections, and they want to have an exceptional employee experience.

Workplace connection isn’t something we need to impress on our employees – they want to create it themselves. We just need to help encourage, support, and enable the environment where they can form these connections with their co-workers. Here are nine simple ways you can help your employees find where they fit in your workplace.

1. Reduce the stigma around loneliness. 💙

Many people feel ashamed about feeling lonely, but a culture of silence contributes to a culture of loneliness.

Talking openly about problems is the hallmark of emotional intimacy, which is the cornerstone of workplace connection.

Set an example – encourage senior leaders with personal experience of loneliness to speak out. Make loneliness a must-address topic in performance reviews and HR check-ins. Train managers on connecting with employees by spotting signs of someone struggling and supporting them.

E&Y’s “r u OK?” initiative is an excellent example of removing the stigma around mental health issues. The 12-month program includes an extensive roster of e-learning sessions to train attendees to better recognize and help people who are struggling and local events hosted by office managing partners sharing authentic personal stories about mental health. E&Y says the response was “tremendous.”

2. Prioritize connection from onboarding onwards. 🖇️

As we’ve said before, onboarding shouldn’t focus purely on functional tasks like signing documents, assigning logins, and on-the-job training.

Social onboarding helps new hires embed into your workplace and form meaningful workplace connections. (Great news! Fifty-seven percent of people feel happier if they’ve got a best friend at work, and 24% of them feel more productive and engaged with stronger workplace connections!)

Walking new hires around the office and drowning them in names isn’t the best way. Instead, help them form deeper connections with their fellow employees at a more appropriate and meaningful pace. A mentor or buddy program is a great start to help improve the employee experience. Also, consider rotating new hires through different teams and encouraging cross-department collaborative projects.

3. Create diverse opportunities for social interaction. 💬

Socialization isn’t a one-off onboarding task.

HR should create ongoing opportunities for social interaction and workplace connection within established groups and with new people. That way, employees constantly have new opportunities to form connections and improve their employee experience – they never get into a connection rut.

Changing the context away from work can help everyone interact on new terms in new ways. Don’t over-rely on one type of activity; you’ll risk consistently alienating the same people if they can’t or don’t want to attend.

Be mindful to encourage connection between new groups so employees have new opportunities for connecting with different employees.

4. Increase collaborative working. 👩‍💻

Social events are great because they allow employees to connect naturally in their preferred groups, but they might not be ideal for employees who are socially shy or already feel disconnected or excluded. Even the most welcoming groups of colleagues can feel unintentionally cliquey.

Give everyone the chance to form deeper workplace connections by creating working situations where collaborations happen in different ways with new people. For example, encourage employees to work in new teams or collaborate on cross-company projects and initiatives.

Remember, collaboration is good for business. Research shows companies that promote collaborative working are five times more likely to be high performing.

5. Prioritize diversity. 🫶

Traditionally marginalized groups are more susceptible to loneliness because they’re more likely to feel alienated or discriminated against (For example, if your whole leadership team is male except for your female CMO, she could feel isolated within her own team).

Focus on how you recruit, support, and promote people from diverse backgrounds. Nobody wants to be the only one.

And while increasing diversity in the workplace is still a work in progress for most businesses, you can help support your under-represented groups by providing them with adequate support to help them feel a welcoming and safe employee experience.

6. Include remote and non-traditional workers. 🏢

There’s a lot to love about the “alternative workforce,” but it can make creating an inclusive employee experience challenging. There’s a lot of potential for people to feel unintentionally excluded.

Small things, like always missing Jeff’s homemade cookies on Fridays because you work from home, can add up to feeling like you aren’t part of the team (Just for the record, that’s not to say you have to crack down on Jeff’s cookies. But it’s about looking at the bigger picture of how we form deeper connections between employees).

Are your freelancers, remote workers, and flexi-timers consistently being excluded in some ways? Do you ever ask remote workers to lead meetings, or do they just dial in and dial out? Do you invite your long-term freelancers to company parties?

There are few better examples of increasing employee engagement despite unique challenges than Ultra Testing – a quality-assurance software-testing company based in New York. Ultra Testing is special because they actively recruit a neuro-diverse workforce – 75% of their workforce have Asperger’s syndrome.

Given the nature and requirements of Ultra’s workforce and the work that Ultra does, the entire team works from home, which can drive social isolation and loneliness. Despite its remoteness, Ultra relies on Slack to create an inclusive, engaged workplace, and they do a fantastic job working through their challenges and helping their employees form connections and feel deeper engagement with their co-workers and their teams.

7. Invite employee ownership. ✋

Encouraging workplace connection shouldn’t just be HR’s responsibility. HR can lead the charge, but the workforce is the troops. Don’t dictate – invite participation and encourage employees to take ownership in crafting their own employee experience.

Barclay’s “This is me” campaign shows how well this can work, seeing hundreds of employees across the business share their personal stories of mental health by video or online. Barclays says the response was exceptional, improving trust and engagement, disability disclosure rates, and retention.

Start an employee-led “workplace connection community” with the freedom to implement new ideas from the ground up. Introduce an anonymous feedback box where employees can suggest ideas or raise issues. Recognize and reward employees who go the extra mile to help one another.

8. Encourage storytelling. 🗣️

We all have a story, and each of our stories is unique. Similarly, we never truly understand someone until we hear their story.

Encourage deeper workplace connection and connection between employees by creating an environment and a place (e.g. a Slack group or Teams chat) where employees can share their own personal stories with their co-workers.

(Note: This isn’t the same as their employee biography or work history. Allow them to go deep into the experiences that have shaped them as a person.)

Not only will this help employees understand each other, but it will also help them understand where they fit in the company’s story as well.

9. Recognize and celebrate wins. 🎉

This is one of the easiest and most fun ways to encourage workplace connection and elevate the employee experience – when one of your employees does something awesome, celebrate it!

Recognizing your employees and celebrating wins are great ways to pull your employees together around something positive and important that has an impact. Also, we create a loop of positive reinforcement: The more we encourage and reward positive behavior, the more wins we’ll have to celebrate.

The Main Takeaway: Build Stronger Connections in Your Workplace

Look around – one in two people you see feel lonely at least once a week. That’s awful.
But here’s the thing. Loneliness rarely happens out of malice.

Barring overt bullying, a lack of workplace connection happens unintentionally. It’s a series of small, inconspicuous moments that add up.

That’s actually great news because it means change is easily achievable! Raise awareness of loneliness, lead from the front with some targeted strategic initiatives encouraging workplace connection, and you’ll have a stronger employee experience before you know it. Building an inclusive culture starts on day one, so don’t wait. Enboarder’s Human Connection Platform can help you create a culture that unlocks the best from every employee, every time.
See how it works.

Become an Enboarder insider!