Increasing Belonging for Remote Employees

“To be, or not to be, that is the question” –written by Shakespeare, spoken by Hamlet, and asked by employees all over the world when thinking about a return to the office or staying a remote employee post-pandemic (whenever that happens). One may say this great debate occurred due to COVID-19, but as a life-long remote employee and belonging researcher, I’m here to challenge that perception. Don’t get me wrong, the global pandemic profoundly impacted where we work and how we work. Of course, no doubt. However, the remote employee crisis has been in motion for a long time.

Through the pandemic, most office employees were forced to work remotely, and everyone was in the same boat. For remote employees, this meant a level-playing field. At first, we all faced the uneasiness and sudden rush of employers scrounging to give employees access to all the tools they’d need to work from home. As COVID-19 numbers rose and it was clear that we would all be rowing in the remote boat for longer, we settled in for the “new normal,” and remote employees (for the most part) felt seen and heard. Remote employees felt validated as it became clear to their office-based teams and managers that employees could be productive and focused when not working in an office. In recent interviews, remote employees told me they had a renewed sense of belonging when work location was taken off the table. Why is that? 

Historically, remote employees believe they’ve been overlooked. In one of the interviews, a participant named Keith shared, “Once they turn off Zoom, I am completely forgotten. They don’t pass me in the hallways, stop and chat. I’m not hanging out at a happy hour. They aren’t socializing with me because they only think of me in a work context.”  When asked if he feels like he is missing out, Keith said yes, and that once everyone went remote, “people tried to be more empathetic to one another during early pandemic days and for once, I felt like they cared about me as a person, not just a workhorse. It increased my sense of belonging at work, whereas before the pandemic, I had started to look for other jobs. I wanted to get out. ”  

The most common perception is that working in a company office creates a stronger sense of belonging.

Sense of belonging comes down to the employee’s perceptions, specifically indexed against their values, traits, and cognitive abilities. Based on this, people form perceptions based on connection and attachment. In addition, while feeling a connection to people, it’s possible to form an attachment to a particular place; that’s called place-belonging. Place-belonging occurs when people feel a place and likens belonging to a feeling of being “at home.” I would argue that remote employees feel a positive connection and attachment to people in the workplace when they have a positive sense of belonging. In contrast, their in-office coworkers have a mix of belonging to people and places. It’s essential to understand this perspective when digging deeper into belonging context. Remote employees told me they felt a lack of belonging to their companies, teams, and managers (not headquarters or company offices). They felt relegated to busy work and reported little contact with their manager making them feel like second-class citizens. They felt that their teammates treated them as one-dimensional and craved social interaction with them. Here are the top reasons that remote employees gave for lack of belonging in the workplace. 

  1. Limits my access to opportunities. Remote employees believe that lack of visibility holds them back from career growth (out of sight, out of mind). In particular, remote employees mentioned that they don’t have enough access to their managers and feel excluded from opportunities. As Adam Grant said in a recent post, “Good bosses know reputation isn’t a proxy for results. They reward performance over presence.”
  2. Discourages people from collaborating with me. It’s just so much easier to grab someone local to them, regardless of skill and expertise. My teammates throw obstacles in my way based on me not sitting with them. They make assumptions about my abilities and capabilities instead of giving me the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to join the conversation.
  3. It makes me feel isolated and invisible. Remote employees rarely get to know their colleagues outside of work. There is a high level of belonging uncertainty, fear, and trauma that explains why remote workers feel less valuable than their in-office co-workers. Teammates only know them through projects and programs. Some reported having SLACK Channels and Chatter groups but noted their chagrin when these groups turned into local hot spot communications, leaving them out of the conversation.  

While the pandemic has leveled the playing field in some regards, when or if people go back to the office, remote employees fear that companies and their managers, in particular, will go back to their old ways. How can managers, teammates, and companies get ahead of this? Here are some quick hits:

  1. Companies – Make your plans for post-COVID-19 working arrangements crystal clear. Some companies have put out statements on whether or not remote work will be an option moving forward; some have even embraced it. But very few have shared policies related to remote work, remote workers, and how company culture will embrace remote employees. Not making this clear is leaving remote employees anxious and increasing their sense of belonging uncertainty. As Mckinsey & Company reported in April of 2021, “Employees who feel included in more detailed communication are nearly five times more likely to report increased productivity.”
  2. Teammates – Communicate about non-work stuff in addition to the projects you are working on. Getting to know your remote coworkers is good for all of you, even if it’s through your virtual water cooler Slack channel or some general thread where you discuss your favorite Netflix binge-worthy shows or posting pics of your pets. Build a report by establishing fun connections. Don’t just post about the best lunch spots to go or meeting up for happy hour-be mindful of being more inclusive.
  3. Leaders – First off, realize how much influence you have. You are the central-most crucial figure in an employee’s working world. Feel the depth of your words and realize that your flexibility, coaching, trust, and care can make or break an employee’s quality of life. Specifically, trust that your employees can work autonomously no matter where they work. That being said, stay connected with them. Ask about more than just the work. Save time in your 1:1s to talk about life. Ask things as simple as “What are you doing this weekend? When the pandemic is over, where’s your first travel destination are easy things to bond over.” These are open-ended topics that give you shared experiences to bond over and will inspire you in ways you can’t begin to imagine–in an authentic manner. Make your 1:1 agendas about them. Better yet–have them craft the agenda and ask that you have 5-10 minutes in the end for what you need to discuss. Make them feel important and cared for, focusing on them as a person, their outcomes, not just activities, and the relationship you both want to have.

Yes, the pandemic is a crisis. But the state of remote workers is a crisis by itself. The good news is that it’s something we can improve by being more mindful and intentional about making remote employees feel more connected and valued in the workplace.

Remote Employees – Tell me about your experience. What would increase your sense of belonging at work?

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