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It’s not about the office, it’s about belonging

To retain employees, organisations need to evolve their approach to building community, cohesion, and a sense of belonging at work.

By Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi and Joe Spratt

Originally published by McKinsey & Company

January 13, 2022 Leaders are increasingly worried about the impact of the past 20-plus months on company culture, connectivity, and cohesion. Our recent Great Attrition survey justifies their concern. More than half of employees who left their job in the past six months did not feel valued by their organisation (54 percent) or manager (52 percent), or they lacked a sense of belonging (51 percent). Additionally, 46 percent cited the desire to work with people who trust and care for each other as another reason to quit. Employees want stronger relationships, a sense of connection, and to be seen.

While leaders recognise these issues, their responses are missing the mark. Many leaders (52 percent) want an in-office workweek of four to five days to strengthen connectivity and collaboration. However, a return to the office will not necessarily solve the problem. In fact, without other significant actions, it could even backfire. The world has changed, and employee attitudes have shifted. To build community, cohesion, and a sense of belonging, organizations need to evolve their approach.

Motivate more than mandate

With ample evidence that remote work is both convenient and productive, many employees are asking why they should go to the office at all. The office is becoming the new “off-site.” It needs to be planned and purposeful, with clear articulation of the benefit. Leaders should carefully consider who needs to attend and why, the objectives, the activities, and how to craft a structured agenda that still leaves room for emergent topics, spontaneous conversation, socialising, and collaboration. Consider a recurring schedule, like “Team Wednesdays” for social lunch and group problem solving, while remaining flexible to changing employee needs. Give employees a reason to want to come in!

One tech company wanted to combine the best of working from home with the best of working in person. It curated soft spaces with a coffee shop for casual ambience, conference rooms, and classrooms for organised group learning. The company addressed what employees missed most about in-person interactions while letting them accomplish individual work from home.

Pick up the phone

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones. Call team members to say hello, check in, and catch up. Break through the agenda-driven interactions that create online fatigue and connect person to person. The calls don’t need to be long; their power comes from authenticity.

One senior leader of a public sector organisation calls several employees each day, unscheduled: “They get nervous if I ask for time, and that’s not the point. I want to know how they’re doing. I want to check in, the way I would in an elevator or at the coffee machine.”

Create space with inclusive norms

As employees seek greater connection with leaders and aspire to be part of a cohesive team, create more opportunities to engage in team settings—especially for junior members.

For example, a round-robin approach can give each team member equal time to contribute to the discussion at hand. The active use of chat in video conferences can help draw out reactions, analysis, and solutions from all team members, including the quieter ones.

Remember, it takes time to create these norms, and figuring out what works may require some experimenting. Don’t rest on early success or be discouraged by failure. Track what is working (and what is not) to continuously evolve for the better.