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How to Create a Sense of Belonging in a Remote Work Environment

How to Create a Sense of Belonging in a Remote Work Environment

Inclusion is the secret of the most successful remote teams. 

Communication is the cost of entry, but inclusive environments take you to the top. Unfortunately, it can be easy for leadership to overlook inclusion. 

McKinsey found that 39 percent of survey respondents have turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of a lack of inclusion in an organization. Additionally, employees who experience microaggressions are 3x more likely to think about leaving their jobs. 

The data doesn’t lie: More inclusion and diverse teams make better decisions, strengthen customer relationships, and lead to better business outcomes. 

The importance of belonging in a remote work environment

Belonging in a remote work environment matters. It emulates the welcoming in-office experience every business seeks to cultivate. Organizations can achieve milestones like improving employee retention, attracting top talent, and building trust with clients as a result of a more engaged remote team. 

A Gallup study found a surprising increase in employee engagement through the onset of the pandemic in 2020. This increase was partly due to managers and corporate leaders going out of their way to increase communication and flexibility.

This illustrates that providing additional support and intentional feedback results in tangible gains in productivity and engagement. If nothing else, the effects of an inclusive work environment are financial too. 

On average, only about one in three employees feel engaged. As a result, it costs organizations as much as $3,400 for every $10,000 in annual earnings. 

It’s important to note that leadership has to take ownership of employee relationships and the initiatives that facilitate them. However, engagement is up to the employee. 

Still, it takes the intentional involvement of leadership to cultivate a sense of belonging that’s felt and embraced by each team member. Consider these six practices as a way to establish and maintain a sense of belonging and inclusion for remote employees. 

How to create a sense of belonging in a remote work environment

1. Prioritize communication

Leadership plays an important role in setting the example of communicating and listening with empathy. 

The effects of communicating as a “flat organization” can be positive. By eliminating the notion of “levels” or “tiers” that stand between leadership and employees, you make communication easier. 

There’s plenty you can do to facilitate communication amongst teams. To ensure you’re prioritizing communication:

  • Keep a remote “open door” policy for any employee that wants to connect
  • Document the feedback process and speak openly about areas of excellence as well as areas of improvement
  • Schedule recurring all-hands meetings and leverage repetition to increase engagement
  • Take advantage of virtual collaboration software for real-time productivity

2. Create a flexible work environment

Consider that 43 percent of employees are less likely to experience burnout when they’re allowed to choose which tasks to work on. Burnout leads to disengagement in the workplace. For that and many other reasons, creating a remote work environment that’s inclusive takes flexibility. 

Being flexible can start with being empathetic to personal work styles, which takes listening. For example, some employees may prefer an asynchronous approach to project management, while others work better in face-to-face Zoom meetings. Being flexible with either approach and establishing a happy medium is key. 

However, flexibility goes beyond being considerate of personal work styles. Empowering employees to freely share ideas and take on a “leadership” role within their team is yet another healthy approach to flexibility.

Provide employees with opportunities to engage in anything from creating tutorials or hosting mini-training sessions. Rather than maintaining a top-down approach, encouraging a collaborative work experience can help employees feel a greater sense of belonging. 

Consider the following flexibility initiatives as part of your overall engagement and inclusion strategy:

  • Continuing to discuss the flexible options employees have at their disposal
  • Shining a light on the flexible decisions that are constantly being made by leadership
  • Eliminating rigidity in how employees are productive and emphasizing results instead
  • Conducting frequent conversations between leadership and employees to outline performance and personal work goals
  • Establishing a more flexible dress code
  • Improving flexible scheduling options that don’t adhere to the traditional 9-to-5 approach 

Flexibility requires the intentional recognition of each employee as an individual with their unique set of strengths and goals. Establishing flexibility to create a sense of belonging leads with individuality in mind. 

3. Provide learning and development opportunities

A staggering 94 percent of employees claim they would stay longer at a company if offered opportunities for growth and learning. Interestingly, learning and development (L&D) is quickly becoming its own entity within organizations, which comes with many implications in terms of an employee’s career growth.

Smart companies are investing more time into aligning employee goals with those of the organization. Identifying skill gaps and investing time in training employees in those areas can pay off in terms of retention, inclusion, and company culture. 

However, remote learning shouldn’t be confused with learning in isolation, especially for remote teams. As the Global Head of Enablement at Shopify, Daniella Bellaire explains, “Remote learning does not mean independent learning. If you are someone who learns by talking through problems and ideas, then pairing up with peers is a great way to learn together and challenge each other. This also helps with engagement and relationship building as a bonus.”

Whether through learning and development software or mentorship initiatives, there are plenty organizations can do to ensure the ongoing development of each employee, including:  

  • Keeping employees informed of career growth opportunities
  • Starting the learning and growth process as early as employee onboarding
  • Creating growth roadmaps to increase clarity and inform goal formation
  • Incorporating L&D into your employee review process

4. Be generous with public recognition

Expressing appreciation through public recognition is a key part of establishing a sense of belonging for remote teams. Currently, only about one in three workers feel like they receive ongoing recognition for their work. 

Moreover, the two that don’t feel appreciated have a higher likelihood of expressing a desire to quit within a year. From ensuring you recognize important employee milestones to shouting out results that exceeded expectations, leadership can and should acknowledge employee efforts. 

Specifically: 

  • Have leadership recognize wins while spending time discussing what can be learned from losses (as opposed to also emphasizing that loss)
  • Establish a culture of acknowledgment by scheduling a specific time for it in recurring meetings
  • Recognize both quantitative and qualitative contributions (which are notoriously harder to measure yet all the more important)
  • Ask for feedback on your recognition efforts

Data suggests that public praise not only encourages productivity, it also deters negative behaviors, like information hoarding and decreased peer-to-peer communication. Plus, about 74 percent of teams that receive praise feel that their work is useful and valuable—which is a key part of maintaining an inclusive and engaged remote work environment. 

5. Maintain engagement 

The shift to a remote work environment catalyzed by the onset of a worldwide pandemic only emphasized the need for better people management. And better people management takes maintaining an engaged remote workforce. 

Beyond the need to establish an organization-wide commitment to engagement and inclusivity, there are a few additional things leaders can do to carry on the engagement they’ve built. 

Consider initiatives like: 

Celebrating differences amongst teams. Emphasize the strengths that come with differences instead of ignoring them. While some employees might be great at collaborating with team members, others might be better at planning and jumpstarting projects.

Both strengths matter. Through your recurring all-hands meetings or designated Slack channels, positively acknowledging differences can work in your favor. 

Training leadership in EQ. A 2019 survey uncovered that 78 percent of employees would consider working longer hours for an employer with more empathy. What’s more, 82 percent of employees would consider changing jobs if it meant working under more empathetic leadership.

For these and many other reasons, emotional intelligence is a must-have for anyone in a position of leadership whose goal is to create a sense of belonging amongst employees. Training executive leadership and middle management in emotional intelligence in the workforce pays off in more ways than one. 

It’s a powerful way for leadership to establish a trusting relationship with employees that’s sustainable. It shows your organization cares enough to lead with empathy and listen to concerns, ideas, and ongoing challenges. 

Offering mentorship or one-on-ones. About nine out of 10 workers who have a career mentor express being happy with their jobs. Mentorship can have a huge effect on creating a sense of inclusion and belonging. 

It garners employee connection and increases recognition of underrepresented groups. Offer mentorship as a way for employees to develop their skills and strengthen their connections within the organization. 

6. Create spaces that simulate in-office interactions

Just because remote teams aren’t in the office doesn’t mean they can’t still engage in everyday banter as if they were. Creating spaces like designated Slack channels or optional monthly meetings where team members can chat and share personal anecdotes can help to increase that shared sense of connection and importance and improve the overall remote work culture.

As Daphne Valentino, Marketing Ops and Sales Enablement Manager at INFUSEmedia, said, “We have taken a unique approach to drive engagement and support our remote workers by holding competitions for both individuals and teams. Zoom meetings have also provided an amazing way for us to still have our coffees and lunches together while chatting and in meetings.”

Much like other organizations, INFUSEmedia has felt the challenge of maintaining a sense of connection through the onset of remote work. Yet to counteract the isolating effects of a remote setup, INFUSEmedia makes it a priority to nurture camaraderie as a key part of its culture. 

“Whether it’s via Zoom, appreciation pings, or posts, just to name a few, this approach has offered us a unique opportunity to peek through the doors of our coworkers’ lives and get to know each other even more, and we’re leaning into that as best as we can,” Valentino said. 

As you think about activities you might have already established—like virtual team-building meetings—think about other low-pressure ways you can encourage employees to engage with leadership as well as with one another. 

Remote work environments are here to stay 

Research shows that employees feel more productive when they’re given the option to work remotely. For this reason, organizations need to harness inclusion strategies that maintain engagement, attract and retain top talent, and make for a more productive remote culture. 

Inclusion initiatives lead to better outcomes and are an essential part of supporting an organization’s revenue goals. But they can only be made possible through empathetic leadership that approaches the creation of an inclusive remote work environment.

Learn more about how WorkRamp can help to promote continuous learning and engagement for your remote staff.  Contact us to schedule a free demo.

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