The marketplace disruption caused by Covid-19 has implications beyond mere numbers. After spending many months in the work from home mode, millions of people are recalibrating their futures.

So are many companies. Facebook, for example, will permanently shift tens of thousands of jobs to remote work. Hundreds of other organizations around the globe are considering similar moves.

Sure, this means that a lot of people will now work in their pajamas and rely on teleconferencing to interact with their workmates.

But there will be trade-offs. Social bonding is more challenging for remote workers. And ad hoc activities like whiteboarding and brainstorming are less robust when the participants are not in the same room. Social distancing and creativity may be the new oxymoron.

All of this relates to the issue of “belonging.” And one man who’s qualified to discuss the subject is Shawn Murphy, author of Work Tribes: The Surprising Secret to Breakthrough Performance, Astonishing Results, and Keeping Teams Together.

Shawn has nearly three decades of experience advising companies on implementing organizational and culture change. He was handpicked to be part of IBM’s elite New Way to Work futurist group.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Your research shows that a critical key to individual and organizational success is an amorphous thing called “belonging.” What exactly is that? How do you know it when you see it?

Murphy: Think of an experience or time when what you brought to the table, in terms of your talents, you felt valued. For example, people actually wanted to hear your ideas or perspective. They turned to you for your input. At the same time, no matter your role or depth of experience, you believed that you were treated with dignity and respect. The final layer to belonging is believing that you have a place in the team. I sum up the experience of belonging as feeling valued, wanted, and welcomed.

You’ll see belonging inspire high performance. The team pivots together with little collateral damage. In the doing of the work, these teams anticipate one another’s needs or responses and accommodate one another with little to no drama. They also have fun together. The team’s chemistry is largely due to the bond they share with one another.

Duncan: What measurable impact does belonging in a workplace have on overall performance at both the individual and organizational level?

Murphy: What we are learning about belonging at work is its positive influence on employee engagement, the employee experience, satisfaction, morale, and productivity.

It’s important to remember that the experience of belonging is subjective. Therefore, it’s harder to measure. Instead, companies need to focus on developing its leaders’ soft skills: feedback, empathy, communication, managing conflict, emotional intelligence. In developing soft skills, leaders are better positioned to inspire a sense of belonging.

Duncan: Belonging is obviously not something that can be “installed” in an organization. What can leaders do to create a work environment where people enjoy—and mindfully contribute to—a sense of belonging?

Murphy: Gallup recently published research that shows managers are the greatest influence on employees’ experience at work. On the surface that isn’t surprising. However, the research company finds that managers account for 70% of employees’ engagement. That’s a massive number. What that tells us is managers in the trenches have the greatest influence on how employees feel about their experience of work, including the experience of belonging.

Belonging is significantly shaped by the quality of a manager’s leadership. I classified leadership behaviors from the companies I studied. Here are a few behaviors. I call them the Leadership Code. They inspire belonging:

  1. Be grounded in business fundamentals. This is the fine line between success and excess. We go to work to get things done. We don’t go solely for the friendships or the perks. Business fundamentals—goals, measures of success, for example—help establish a foundation for performance.
  2. Do it for the tribe. Make decisions that help the tribe, or team, to be successful. The team’s health and performance are paramount. For belonging to flourish, leaders can’t make decisions to satisfy drama kings/queens and energy vampires. The focus is on what’s best for the tribe to help the company be successful.
  3. Know your center of gravity. In high performing companies, results and team health are highly regarded. The pressure to achieve both is best accomplished when a leader knows his or her personal values. These leaders, guided by knowing their personal values, remain consistent and predictable when under pressure.

Duncan: As working remotely becomes more common, what can both leaders and workers do to maintain a sense of belonging?

Murphy: The best thing for leaders to do with a remote work force is to create connectedness. With social isolation a growing workforce issue, leaders can help combat it. They should allow time in every meeting to discuss non-work topics. Leaders can start with a question that gets the conversation going. The entire team can answer the question. Leaders also need to check in with employees individually. Discuss work. Discuss successes or even struggles with meeting deadlines. In these times, a concerted effort to connect and connect team members to one another is paramount.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan
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