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Podcast: How to create a sense of belonging

A sense of belonging is something we all crave, whether in our personal lives or at work.

Connecting with people that share our values and passions makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

In today’s episode of the Candid Comms podcast, I’ve examined this topic and focused on what we need to know, do and think about.

Further listening: Being candid with Amrit Nijjar, Inclusion and Belonging Manager at Tarmac.

What is the podcast?

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean.

How to create a sense of belonging

Thank you to my Producer, Debbie West of Seren Creative.

This episode covers:

  • What is a sense of belonging?
  • Why does this matter for organisations?
  • An exercise to help you determine and refine your definition
  • The impact of culture on belonging
  • The role compassion, connection and confidence play.

Resources mentioned in the episode and further reading

Transcript of this week’s episode

You’re listening to the Candid Comms podcast with Rachel Miller. Join me every week for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.

Hello and welcome to the show. In this week’s episode, you and I are going to be focusing on creating a sense of belonging for our employees. And as ever you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about, are you ready? Let’s get started.

I wonder what the word belonging means to you? When I say that, how do you translate that in your mind? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like when you’re planning your internal communication? Do you have belonging in mind?

If you’ve listened to season one of the Candid Comms podcast, you’ll have heard me talk about my intentions framework or my “secret sauce”, which is when I’m thinking about any internal communication before I start diving in and creating campaigns or messaging or plans.

Setting intentions in internal communication by Rachel Miller

I look at what do I want employees to do say, think, feel as a result of my internal communication and how do I want them to behave.

This is what we need to know. What do we want employees to feel through our internal communication?

You may well have your own version of my intentions framework inside your organisation. You might have think, feel, do, know, feel, act  – all sorts. There’s lots of different combinations that are available.

However, if you don’t have the word feel inside that framework, I encourage you to put it in there because if the last 15 months have taught us anything in the wonderful world of internal communication is that we need to be making emotional connections with our employees.

That shows up in a number of ways. For me, that includes things like having emotional intelligence. It shows up through things like empathy and compassion. These are beautiful mindsets to have within any workforce, regardless of your size, whether you’re a team of 10 or a team of 160,000 people, we need to be focused on the emotional connection, how we want our employees to feel.

The world of work right now, as I’m recording this in June, 2021 is changing.

There’s lots of changes on the horizon for many organisations, particularly because of hybrid work. So what that means is, as we start to edge our way back into some kind of normality or some kind of focus on the future of work inside our organisations, we’re looking at how do we reimagine and recreate the environments that our employees find themselves in.

Regardless of your situation, you have frontline workers where you have people all in one office, whether you’re having a mixture of people working at home and working in your place of work, the focus for us needs to be creating a sense of belonging. So what you need to know is what that means for your organisation.

What does that mean to you? If I say, do you have a sense of belonging in your organisation? What would you say if you would say yes, I believe we do have a sense of belonging to what are our employees engaged with their role or aged with the organisation.

And there’s a difference between role engagement and organisational engagement and include some information in the show notes from Dr. Kevin Ruck at PR Academy. He’s written about the difference between role engagement and organisational engagement.

Role engagement and organisational engagement

So let’s just put that into context.

Imagine you are a midwife for example, and your passion is your profession. You love being a midwife. You love working here inside hospitals and you love delivering babies perhaps. Now, does it matter to you which particular hospital Trust that you work for?

So here in the UK, we have the National Health Service (NHS). Does it matter to you which NHS Trust you work for? Possibly, or is what matters to you your actual job? You’re engaged with your role as a midwife rather than the organisation.

Most internal communication goes in at an organisational level. So we talk a lot about how amazing is to be part of this wider organisation and what we miss Comms friends, and I encourage you to think about this for your own organisation is how do we really value and affirm our employees for the types of jobs that they do? Whether they’re accountants, whether they’re retail, employees, whether they are nurses or midwives, how do we demonstrate through our internal communication that they are valued and that they are important, not just about the collective picture of our organisation.

There are many ways you can do that, that feels like a whole separate podcast episode in its own right. Maybe I’ll record that in future. But the key for me is how do we create a sense of belonging? Not only to our role, to our team, to our department, our country, our region, but also to our organisation. So we need know what we mean when we’re talking about belonging, I’m going to share a link in the show notes to a really good study from Deloitte, which was focused on belonging and how to create the conditions for belonging to happen inside of organisations.

Further reading: 2021 Global Human Capital Trends by Deloitte.

So we need to know what we mean. If your answer to my question of, is there a sense of belonging inside your organisation is no, why is that? What’s missing? What needs to happen? If your employees to feel a sense of belonging, either with their jobs or with the organisation, what would that look like? What would that feel like? What would it sound like to have a sense of belonging?

I recently gave the keynote speech at the Public Relations Institute of Ireland conference, which was wonderful. They were such a warm bunch of people. They made me feel so incredibly welcome. So thank you so much to everybody at the PRII for inviting me to join you virtually for your conference and talk about all things internal communication related.

PRII

Part of the keynote that I gave, I did a 45 minute session. And part of that keynote was focused on hybrid work in particularly the future of work.

And I focused in on belonging. I looked at why is belonging important to help us engage our hybrid workers? It’s important to engage any work as I’m going to talk about, engage in that context, I’m talking about how do we help our people to thrive? How do we create the conditions where our employees really feel that they are connected to the organisation, it to each other, and to our purpose, whether we’re curing patients, selling widgets, transporting people, how do we focus on creating that really clear sense of belonging?

One of my fellow speakers as part of that conference was Sally-Anne Fisher, who’s the Head of Comms at Trinity college in Dublin. She talked about collegiality and it was fascinating to me to listen to her stories. She was talking about COVID and talking about how they were working really hard as a college to connect their students with each other, particularly their global students.

And she was talking about that mindset as collegiality. And in my mind, it’s the same as belonging. She was talking about, how do we make people still feel part of this body of students and part of this family as a college when we’re not together in person and particularly for their global students. It was a really interesting talk.

So I encourage you to think about what does belonging mean for your organisation? How does it show up?

Belonging also exists in many facets of our lives. If you are a sports fan, for example, you will probably feel a sense of belonging and connectivity with a particular sporting team. You may wear their colours on your back. I have a friend of mine whose husband is a football fan soccer fan here in the UK. And it extends so much that their colour is blue. It’s dark blue and their rival team is red.

And he won’t allow anything red in the house because he’s so connected to and has such a clear sense of belonging with his particular football team, which is the blue team. Therefore he doesn’t want anything red in the house to the point where there’s no red cars, no red clothing, anything like that, he’s taken that sense of belonging to a massive scale.

Belonging

But what does that mean for our own organisations? How does that show up? What does that sense of belonging look like? What are the artefacts that we have? If he wants to know more about artefacts, I encourage you to look up Edgar Schein’s work and I’ll include a link in the show notes. He does some amazing work on culture and in particular, looking at our espoused beliefs and values and artifacts, physical representations of culture inside organisations.

So that might be that you have certain colours.It might be that you have a lanyard that all your employees, or it might be the tone of voice. It might be something very physical. So if you go to an office and I’ve done this, particularly if I’ve been auditing organisations, I’ve been going to different sites and places of work, or my team have, then we look at what’s that connectivity between the sites.

How is there a sense of belonging that’s being fostered amongst these separate workplaces? How do they look and feel the same? What are the physical artifacts that have been used? And it may be things like, colours of furniture or the decor. For example, all of that is focused on creating a sense of belonging and connecting our people to each other. So that’s what we need to know when thinking about belonging, we need to define it inside our organisations.

Further reading: Coming to a new awareness of organisational culture – by Edgar Schein.

The second thing for us to focus on today is what do we need to do? And I’m going to share a link with you in the show notes to a blog post that I featured recently on the All Things IC blog, and it focuses on how to create a sense of belonging for hybrid workers. And it was written by internal comms consultant, Helen Deverell.

Further reading: How to create a sense of belonging for hybrid workers.

I asked her to do some research and to speak to people within the world of internal communication to really gather their thoughts, their insights, their evidence about this topic. It’s super important in any organisation that we focus on belonging, but for right now, it feels even more critical.

So through that article Helen interviewed some people, and I love some of the quotes that she featured. They include some comments from Isabel Collins, who is a Belonging and Culture consultant.

Text: our sense of belonging was taken for granted, until it was taken away

If you’ve not discovered Isabel’s work before I encourage you to check it out, she records a podcast on belonging, which is really worth listening to, so I’ll include the links to her work and her website in the show notes.

Further reading: Find out more about Isabel via her website or On Belonging podcast. You can also find her on Twitter @IsabelBelonging.

In the article that Helen kindly wrote for me is about, is quoted as talking about a sense of belonging. And she says, when thinking about the pandemic in particular, our sense of belonging was taken for granted until it was taken away.

Isn’t that poignant? That feels so true to me, it feels like lots of the experiences we have as employees and as part of organisations is things that we don’t necessarily think about until suddenly they’re taken away. So suddenly you are working from home or suddenly you are disconnected from each other. So thinking about Isabel’s work in particular, she shared some thoughts on belonging within this blog post.

And she said, creating a sense of belonging for employees as we move towards a new, more hybrid ways of working is underscored by three things. And she defined them as connection, compassion, and confidence.

Creating a sense of belonging for employees is underscored by three key things connection compassion confidence

So connection is understanding how you can help people feel a part of not apart from it when you don’t have a physical workspace. So how do you help your people feel connected?

Compassion is recognising that we’ve all experienced the pandemic very, very differently. So people will feel a sense of belonging to an organisation that respects and facilitates that. I think that’s really important in particular, if you have frontline workers, then their place of work may not have changed. So when we’re talking about how to create a sense of belonging now, and in the future, how are we looking at our audience demographics? So how are you looking at your groups of employees. When you’re thinking about your frontline workers, for example, what has changed for them or what has stayed the same?

That’s really important. There is never a one size fits all approach in an organisation, but particularly if you have a certain percentage of your workforce who are frontline, who are retail employees, or who are working in hospitals or driving trains or buses. Then actually their experience with the pandemic will be very different to our people who are working in offices. So compassion is the key here. Everybody has experienced the pandemic very differently.

And the third part is confidence and that’s in two parts. Really, it’s got two meanings number one is having people that you can confide in to a sense of morale and mutual support, which I really like. And the second part is confidence and trust in your leadership inside your organisation. So how confident do your people feel? How do your leaders help employees feel a sense of belonging to the organisation?

I look for that in the work that I do through All Things IC and my team do through through All ThingsIC when we’re working with organisations and we quite often have conversations about trust and credibility for our leaders. Add another lens to it, think about how do our leaders have a role to play in creating a sense of belonging?

So something that we need to do is to be really, really clear in terms of what are those conditions in our own organisation. So what does connection and compassion and confidence look like? How does it show up for our leaders? How do they evidence that they are focused on creating a sense of belonging? And most importantly, why does this matter? How does it help you achieve your company purpose?

Another thing I want to highlight from the article that I’m referring to on my blog is a quote from Annique Simpson, and Annique is a Change Comms Business Partner here in the UK.

Further reading: See Annique’s website, you can find her via Twitter @Annique_Simpson.

Annique Simpson quote "We have to be careful to not over-engineer belonging. It’s a very human thing that needs to happen organically. We need to avoid it becoming a tick box exercise that has no meaning.”

And she talked about the need to be careful to not over-engineer belonging. It’s a very human thing that needs to happen organically. We need to avoid it becoming a tick box exercise that has no meaning. And I could not agree more with that. Thank you Annique.

That’s really important if you’re looking at the conditions inside your organisation, if we’re looking at, how do we create a sense of belonging is how do you create a real sense of belonging? So, something I want you to do is make sure that you are listening to your employees.

So if you’re trying things out, if you’re focusing on how do we help our leaders be more human, be more authentic, be focused on creating that sense of belonging, demonstrating empathy, demonstrating compassion, and all the things that we need them to do in order to build up that currency of trust inside our organisation.

How can we make sure that it feels genuine because it needs to be, our employees are the first ones to spot when it feels like things have been shoe horned in and they don’t feel real and they don’t feel human. So our role here Comms friends is to check. We need to be listening constantly to our employees. We need to be gathering in their insights. So what, what’s their feedback?

What do they think about the things that we’re saying inside our organisation? And then what are the rumours? What are the concerns? What are the perceptions that our employees are having? Because if we’re not listening to those things, then their perception becomes reality because we’re not combating it. We’re not going back to clarify, to check for understanding. Listening is such an important role when it comes to internal communication, it’s our business to know our business.

And part of that is creating the right environments for our employees to have access to two-way communication channels. So we are listening constantly because we want to avoid anything feeling like it’s a tick box exercise.

In the final part of today’s episode, we’re going to get organised and get a definition in place. So this is what I want you to think about. Now, if you’re out and about right now, if you’re having a run, walking the dog, pushing a baby in a pram, or maybe in the bath, then thank you for listening. And letting me accompany you in all those various activities. But you may want to park this part and come back to it. You can think about it now, but you will need to write something down.

So what I want you to be able to do is to fire up a word document, or grab a page of a notebook and write down belonging is… and then I’m going to encourage you complete that definition. And I’m going to encourage you to do it in a number of times.

Belonging is...

Think about it first, from your perspective as an internal communicator, what does belonging mean inside your organisation? How do you define it and write that down, then do that again, but think about it from an employee’s perspective. And I know that we’re employees, but we have such unfiltered access to our organisation.

We know the inner most workings and the inner most thoughts of our leaders, or at least we should do if we’re doing our jobs.

Well, it is our business to know our business. So often I find it’s quite hard to separate ourselves out from being a regular employee, but, we are, so think about belonging through the eyes of your employees. So what does belonging mean to them? And then do that again from a leadership perspective.

As professional Communicators, it's our business to know our business.

How do your leaders view belonging or how do you think they view belonging? What does it mean to them? And write that down now that might feel really, really difficult. And if it does bear with me, because I find whenever I’m doing this sort of exercise with all things, I see clients or comms friends, if that feels really difficult, flip it around.

So instead of saying belonging is let’s write down what, it’s not so belonging, isn’t a tick box exercise. It’s not being seen to do something to create a sense of belonging amongst our employees. That is false, that is forced and false, and doesn’t feel genuine for example. So flip it and then think about it again from your employee’s perspective.

Think about it again from your leader’s perspective. And you could include whoever you want in this exercise. This is your exercise. This is something for you to think about. It might be that you think about it from your customer’s perspective or your potential employees perspective.

The choice is yours. This is your exercise. You can invite what you like. And when you’ve written that out and you created those definitions, what are you going to do as a result?

Now you will have heard me talk about this a lot. If you’ve been listening to season one of the Candid Comms Podcast in my work, I use start, stop, continue a lot. It’s really, really super simple. But if you’ve got your definition and you’ve mapped out, this is what belonging is to our organisation.

So what are you going to do as a result of defining it? How are you going to turn it into action? How are you going to make something which feels quite intangible tangible? How do we bring this to life? What do we, as a comms team, need to start, stop, continue.

What do we, as an organisation need to start, stop, continue? Complete that exercise to help you gather your thoughts on belonging. It will help you articulate and define them, bring it to life for your own organisation.

What you could do. If you’re thinking about creating a sense of belonging, it all feels a bit optional. Then one of the frameworks that I use a lot in my work is what do we gain? What do we lose? So just take a huge step back with me right now. Think about this topic really objectively, because you could do something or you could do nothing. And what would the impact be for your organization? Particularly if we’re focusing on the future of work right now, what would we gain as an organisation?

What do we gain

If we really invested time, money, and effort, and focusing on creating a sense of belonging, what would the outcome be? So what would happen as a result of doing this sort of work? And then conversely, what would we lose? So what would we gain by doing this sort of work and what would we lose?

And I’m going to hazard a guess, here Comms friends that what you would gain would far outweigh what you would lose. I use that a lot to help me focus on making the right decisions, both for my clients and for my own business, All Things IC.

When you’re thinking about what could I do then breaking it down in terms of what would we gain and what would we lose? I find helps me clarify my thoughts and I prefer that to use in pros and cons because sometimes I think if I go into a pros and cons mindset, it’s very positive/negative.

This enables me to surface other feelings and emotions. Just, it’s a richer experience for me in terms of tapping into the way that I’m thinking. You can use that in any part of your organisation. If you’re having really difficult conversations with stakeholders, try this.

Let me know how you get on, do get in touch with me and find me online. You can Tweet me @AllThingsIC. Find me on Instagram, @rachelallthingsic. look me up on LinkedIn, Rachel Miller, or go to allthingsic.com/contact – and send me a note through my website.

What I want to know is what impact does this have? So when you’re having conversations with stakeholders, for example, who say, we must have this story on the internet, look at what would you gain by saying yes to that?

And what would you lose? And then think about what would they gain and what would they lose? Use it as a mechanism to gather your thoughts do, let me know how you got on with it. I’d love to know.

There was a lot in this episode. I hope you found it really helpful to help you define, refine and focus on creating a sense of belonging. If you’re already doing this brilliant, I would love hear from you.

If you’ve got a fantastic story that you’d love to share, why not get in touch with me through any of the mechanisms that I just mentioned and offer to write a guest post, to share your wonderful experience and stories with readers of my All Things IC blog, I would love to hear from you.

So I hope you found this episode useful as ever, please do get in touch and let me know what you’re going to do differently as a result of listening to this episode of the Candid Comms podcast. And remember what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 20 June 2021.

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