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Richard Peachey



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Employee belonging: Don’t become a dysfunctional work family this Christmas

Christmas can be a lonely time for many people, especially through a pandemic. How can HR tackle this?

Christmas is one of the obvious excuses and reasons for employees to come together as a gang, in teams and as a whole organisation, to celebrate and have fun with one another. But it’s also when people can feel their isolation more acutely. The ongoing remote working and canceled social gatherings mean this coming period will encourage even more of a sense of distance – of being part of a dysfunctional work family.

HR needs to think and act on belonging and relationships, especially this Christmas period when there’s so many opportunities for bringing people together (or pushing them further apart).

Research conducted by BetterUp Labs scientists in the US back in 2019 indicates that the need to belong is what makes us human – it’s hardwired into our DNA. Feelings of being left out (“akin to a physical pain”) lead to serious consequences, they say. Carrying out experiments among more than 2,000 employees, the researchers found that a strong sense of belonging is linked to a 56% increase in job performance and 75% fewer days of absence. Staff were also 50% less likely to leave their employer.

In the UK, these ideas have been backed up by Connectr and its 2021 report into belonging as ‘HR’s Growing Crisis’. This report suggested that only around 34% of office workers felt that they belonged in their organisation. It highlights that, despite the importance of belonging, HR has been largely unaware of what is happening. The profession as a whole has focused too much on what people were giving to the organisation – engagement, motivation and loyalty – rather than the two-way connection that’s needed.

Connectr found that:

  • 93% of HR professionals surveyed still believed that staff felt a sense of belonging

  • 80% argued they didn’t have time to prioritise belonging

  • 92% stated that they struggled to get buy-in from the senior team

Workplace relationships are being left to dwindle

Employees in general have become less attached to physical workplaces, and in many ways, also to each other.

The pandemic has obviously accelerated changes already underway in terms of the use of video calls and a reliance on digital interaction. Remote conversations have become the default option. Face-to-face meetings have become the exception – an event needed for socialising and community-building.

Consequently employees are less rooted in the codes and identities provided by a daily place of work and its routines. There has been fewer team activities and more online learning.

All of this means that the usual to and fro of work conversations has been – and will be – different. Sometimes made easier by tech, sometimes harder. In some ways workplace conversations will never be the same again post-pandemic.

All of this means that HR needs to think and act on belonging and relationships, especially this Christmas period when there’s so many opportunities for bringing people together (or pushing them further apart). The quality of workplace conversations is the key.

We need more ‘conversational integrity’ among both management and staff. This requires better conversation skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views, and different people. How can we achieve this?

1. Create more conversations

Workplace pressures, new routines and the use of technology are all acting against the everyday flow of conversations. Businesses want action and efficiency without debate. But conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event, such as being summoned to a meeting or into a weekly team slot.

Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported through making time. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of the value of having open conversations – share the benefits of having a ‘clear air’ culture.

2. Get leaders and managers to set an example

People in groups mimic the behaviour of other people. If bosses are tight-lipped and looking only to protect their position, their reports will do the same. So managers need to make sure, for example, that if there’s a problem, they shouldn’t just make it about their employees.

It’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to the current difficulties – something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own role. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication.

3. Help people face up to difficult conversations

It’s not just about avoiding conflict. Challenging conversations are good for business, for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and a sense of motivation.

But particular skills are needed for this. Too often senior staff believe their experience means they already know the answers, that they are inherently independent. Instead, having better conversations is all based on listening skills, curiosity and empathy.


4. Find ways to balance digital with face-to-face

The reliance on digital conversations, video calls and messaging means fundamental differences. Digital conversations can be more superficial. Instant but lacking the face-to-face ingredients that encourage rapport, active listening and empathy – such as body language and signals of mood.

With quick, functional exchanges via digital platforms there are greater chances of miscommunication and misinterpretations. Nuance and subtlety can be lost. Evidence suggests people find video calls draining (from the extra effort demanded for listening and creating a connection). Now that the novelty has worn off, conversations are shorter, more mechanical.

5. Introduce more mentoring

In Harvard Business Review, the BetterUp authors emphasise the value of mentoring schemes in trying to cultivate that sense of belonging: team leaders who can help line reports feel included, act as a “fair-minded ally”, sharing stories about how they’ve coped with difficult workplace dynamics, offering protection against behaviours of others that makes people feel excluded.

This is certainly sensible advice – but not that mentoring will not work effectively if there is a culture of reticence, where staff aren’t used to speaking openly and don’t trust their managers or colleagues.

Coming together, even when apart

Given all the ways in which work brings us together and gives us a sense of shared purpose, there’s no reason why any organisation should be dysfunctional, particularly around Christmas. We just need to be clear that the annual party and
cakes in the office isn’t enough to make people feel like they really belong.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘Seven considerations for your Christmas party‘.

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Richard Peachey


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