Fostering a sense of community remotely

Many companies around the world have already switched to working remotely. While to some the idea of working from home may seem like an advantage, others find it an obstacle.

Businesses have overcome many challenges in recent times, from motivating their people to maintaining a sense of community and learning how to adapt to unexpected circumstances. But why should companies retain a sense of community outside the physical workplace, and how can they ensure teams feel like they belong to this community? We explore the developments driven by home working and the tools that can be used to make this connection feasible.

Why does feeling that you belong matter?

Humans are programmed at an instinctive level to want to belong to social groups; it’s a survival trait that has been hardwired into our DNA to ensure that we work together for the common good. This instinct is why loneliness, exclusion and rejection can all cause feelings of pain and hurt.

A study from Cigna found that 61% of respondents felt lonely in the workplace, and that people who don’t have strong coworker relationships (43.7%) are 10 percentage points more lonely than those who do (53.7%), showing just how significant fostering a sense of belonging at work really is.

As well as being good for people on an individual level, developing engagement among colleagues has economic benefits for businesses. Loneliness can affect key factors like productivity and engagement with colleagues and the company, leading to a bad performance and loss of interest at the workplace.

Lonely workers are less productive:

  • 45% of lonely workers claim higher productivity than their peers most or all of the time.
  • 12% believe their work is of lower quality than it should be.
  • Lonely workers think about quitting more than twice as often as non-lonely workers.

HBR found that high feelings of belonging were linked to a 56% increase in job performance, turnover risk was halved, and sick days were reduced by 75%. They predict that in a company of 10,000 people, this would result in annual savings of around $52 million. However, just 37% of survey respondents felt that employee engagement was a significant area of focus for their company at present.

Cultivating community

The American psychiatrist Dr M. Scott Peck defines community as: “a way of being together with both individual authenticity and interpersonal harmony so that people become able to function with a collective energy even greater than the sum of their individual energies“.

While important to note that working in the same physical space doesn’t automatically mean having a sense of belonging, for many this sense of community has faded away due to remote work. Studies have shown that 67% feel less connected to their colleagues since working from home. However, 69% of people expressed their eagerness to continue working from home at least some of the time due to its multiple benefits, such as reducing transport costs and increasing time with the family.

To address this challenge, companies should concentrate efforts on creating an inclusive environment for every member of their workforce. Inclusive environments can be defined as spaces where people feel appreciated for their unique characteristics and are comfortable being their true selves at work.

Conducting a survey of how teams are currently feeling about the level of inclusion at an organization is a great place to start – it can help teammates feel integrated, listened to, and that their voices are valued. In addition, creating social groups around shared interests – sports, hobbies, virtual events, etc. – can be an excellent opportunity to bring people together to share their experiences, values, and identities, building two-way communication and community.

Unlocking the community communication challenge

Improving communication should be a primary area of focus for any company wishing to improve its teams’ sense of belonging. More frequent check-ins by managers is an effective place to start, as management relationships are crucial in developing an inclusive and open working culture: 49% of professionals have left a job due to a bad manager. 

It’s also a good idea to carve out time for teammates to connect on an informal level. The ‘water-cooler chats’ and coffee breaks that were previously the bastions of office-based life are more important than ever when workers don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face on a daily or weekly basis. Freeing up time for teams to connect in this way can make all the difference when it comes to forming personal connections, particularly since 57% of people say that having a friend at work makes the experience more enjoyable.

There is a multitude of technological solutions geared towards solving the issue of remote communication. Most people have become familiar with video conferencing tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic: Zoom Video Communications Inc. recorded 300 million meeting participants in 2020, and Microsoft Teams reported 145 million Daily Active Users in April 2021. However, it’s not enough to merely provide teams with access to these tools – they must be encouraged to use them for more than work-related purposes.

The Never Home Alone initiative from Starling Bank provides the perfect example of how companies can go further. Starling’s initiative started at the beginning of the pandemic and consists of weekly live streams between teammates to exchange ideas about how to look after themselves. They cover various topics, from advice for physical and mental well being to online resources for children.

Understanding the importance of community within an organization is the first step in creating a unified culture where everyone can thrive. While the pandemic forced many companies to adopt a remote working culture very quickly, it’s now time to ensure that teams don’t miss out on the feeling of belonging that they once had from sharing a physical space with their colleagues. Technological solutions can help to facilitate connections but providing a space for people to be themselves without a focus on work-related topics might just be the key needed to unlock a deeper bond between co-workers. We’re all human and working remotely shouldn’t mean we forget the importance of human connections.

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