In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry discusses how technology can help all of your employees find a place of belonging in a remote or hybrid workplace.
Belonging ranks high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—humans are psychologically wired to seek acceptance. And when our efforts fail, the pain of social rejection is real, following the same neural pathways as physical pain.
Unfortunately, many modern organizations have a belonging problem. Recent studies have found that 25 percent of employees feel they don’t belong at their workplace, and 40 percent of employees feel isolated. When employees feel they don’t belong, their performance suffers, and they’re significantly more likely to seek employment elsewhere.
The pandemic and the wave of companies going remote without much strategy to ensure employees feel a sense of connection to the organization and to one another is one major contributor to a lack of belonging. Just as remote and hybrid companies have learned to use tech to manage distributed teams and remote collaboration, perhaps it’s time to apply the same problem-solving to belonging.
The High Cost of Low Belonging
There’s a lot at stake for ensuring employees feel like they belong. Employees who feel they belong have a 50 percent lower turnover risk, 56 percent better overall job performance and, on average, give their employers a 167 percent higher organizational promoter score compared to their peers.
When belonging is missing, DEI initiatives fall flat, as well. Considering that U.S. companies spend almost $8 billion annually on DEI training, the problem is as much a human one as a financial one.
Why is belonging so essential to DEI? First, without a strong sense of belonging, voluntary turnover increases, particularly among underrepresented groups. Belonging is also critical to fostering a sense of psychological safety, which allows employees to be fully themselves at work—including being open and authentic in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and more—and feel comfortable voicing opinions and ideas. Additionally, research shows psychological safety improves team dynamics, decision-making, innovation and creativity.
Taking a Tech Approach to Belonging
Tech is starting to tackle the problem of belonging at work. One such startup is Helm, which has built software designed to foster employee belonging and give employees a space to be their authentic selves.
The inspiration behind Helm came when co-founders Austin Drabik and Tommy Hillyer witnessed their friends, who had graduated college around 2020, be onboarded remotely — often poorly — and soon after leave for other jobs, often doing the same work for similar pay.
“Besides a select few companies, no one knew how to do remote well,” Drabik explains. “Imagine you move to a new country. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know anyone there, and you don’t know where you’re going. That’s how these people felt getting onboarded—lost, anxious, unsure who to reach out to. Looking at the research out there, we realized the common factor among these job hoppers was they didn’t feel they belonged. They didn’t know anyone at the company and didn’t feel a sense of connection to anyone they were working with.”
Helm tackles belonging in a few different ways. During onboarding, for instance, it automatically introduces new hires to the team, sparking interaction by providing information about the new hire and what they’re into.
“Otherwise, your manager might just tell you to introduce yourself, which can be anxiety-inducing because you don’t know what to say or who to reach out to,” Drabik says. “If you onboard remotely and don’t do it well, new employees can become a high turnover risk, which is an expensive problem — it can cost as much as 200 percent of an employee’s salary to replace them.”
Because authenticity can be easier said than done in a virtual space — if you’re remote, all your coworkers see of you is a small video screen or photo — Helm also hopes to provide a space for people to be fully themselves.
“If you can’t feel like you can be yourself, if you’re not authentic, you’re not going to feel like you belong,” says Drabik. “Likewise, if you don’t really know who you’re working with, you’re not actually able to show up as you are. We spend one-third of our waking hours at work, so if we can’t be authentic in one-third of our waking life, what’s the point?”
Digital Tools, Human Relationships
Software designed specifically to encourage employee belonging may be new, but the idea of tech helping foster connections among employees certainly isn’t. I’ve led a remote-first company for more than two decades, and I’ve seen first-hand how the right tech tools used in the right way can help build strong relationships and communities, even among remote employees who rarely, if ever, meet face to face.
For instance, Centric uses its collaboration platform, Microsoft Teams, as a home for Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs. This has helped redefine Centric’s approach to DEI and belonging. This designated space for our Black Employees @ Centric, PRIDE @ Centric, Juntos, and Empowering Women @ Work ERGS — among others — create a sense of community that enriches the employee experience by enabling deep relationships and a sense of belonging. By offering different modes of connection, including virtual chat channels, employees have a variety of ways to share their personalities, helping everyone get to know everyone else a little better.
“While technology can never replace a sense of belonging, it can be a powerful tool to facilitate relationships; the goal isn’t to replace social interactions but to complement them,” Drabik says. “If you approach software as a tool and use it by design rather than default, you can make it work for you in the same way we figured out how to design offices to enable those spontaneous encounters.”