Does belonging at work really matter?

Yes it does.

Just over a year ago I wrote an article on LinkedIn ‘Home away from Home’ with my initial thoughts on belonging at work.

This blog is, in effect, part 2.

It’s the evolution of my thoughts on this subject and talentleadersconnect (#TLCon) kindly allowed me the opportunity to share my views on this very subject to in-house talent, acquisition, HR and recruitment professionals at Foyles Bookstore, London (11th May).

My first experience of belonging at work


At 14 I had a part time job working at Wot’s Cookin’ chip shop.  I grew up in Crewe, by the way, made famous for two things.  Crewe Alex and the railway station.  Wot’s Cookin’ unfortunately did not make the ‘All Star’ list of Crewe eateries…

However, at £1.50 an hour, this was better paid than a newspaper round I remember thinking at the time.  I liked having a bit of extra money but it was still quite a lonely job.  As I was so young and inexperienced, most of job involved sat on a stool in the back peeling potatoes (by hand more often than not as the potato peeling machine was always conveniently broken with an ‘awaiting repairs’ sign that looked older than I was).

After a few weeks I was promoted to serving customers, but that didn’t end well.

I got the sack in the end for not wrapping the chips properly.

By this time I had turned 15 and with the confidence and exuberance of youth, I had already identified where I wanted to work next.

A 5 minute walk from Wot’s Cookin’, back into the town centre of Crewe, was the holy mecca of fast food.

McDonalds.  And they were hiring.


It was a big deal for me then because not only did they pay more (£2.75 an hour as a probation rate), but a few of my school friends had just started there.  Let’s skip over the fact I wasn’t quite old enough (the person hiring me must have misread the year of my birth and this was well before the time of stringent right to work checks, I hasten to add), this was ‘the’ job to have when you’re a teenager (in Crewe).  I had full bragging rights.

I had a job and I was working at McDonalds.  See you later Wot’s Cookin’, I’m in the big league now!

For 3 years I worked part time for McDonalds.  Through my GCSEs and A Levels, McDonalds became my second (or third) home.

I loved it.

My friends were there.  I made new friends. Impatient customers, hyperactive kids and fellow school friends trying to blag free food, notwithstanding, I had the most fun. To this day I have very fond memories of my experience working there.

At 15 years old, McDonalds gave me my first concept of belonging at work.

Why does belonging matter?

We belong to many groups, clans, tribes, home towns, sporting clubs, health clubs, professional societies, churches, religious groups, political parties, groups within work.

If you had to make a list of the groups you feel you belong to, what would it look like?  How many types of groups could you list?

Being part of group – work or otherwise – creates lasting bonds that feed in to and reaffirm our sense of self-worth.

It’s confirmation that we matter.  That we are amongst like-minded people.

What does this mean for the world of work?

We will choose to go to organisations where we feel we will fit in.

That as well as work, we can have fun.  Where we can be part of something, on a day to day basis and more importantly, we can be ourselves.

  • How many times have we made decisions to join a business based on our need to be ‘part of something’?
  • How do start-ups attract people to work for them when they don’t have that success yet? Where all they have is an idea?
  • Why do people want to work for minimum wage and then continue to stay for years even though they could get a higher paid job elsewhere?
  • Why did you leave your last organisation to join where you are today – how much of it was do with the fact that you felt you no longer belonged?

This is why belonging matters.

It’s above and beyond the job itself, and in some cases, the organisation.

It’s the people we work with.  The teams we belong to.  And our ability to do our best work knowing we have people around us who we trust, can get on with and without them realising it, they become our support network.

Psychologists over the years have looked at belonging and have determined that it is a fundamental human emotion (Baumeister and Lery, 1995).  Moreover, that work may be providing much of the social support that was formally maintained by extended families and communities (Gill, 1999).

Belonging matters and it fulfils a psychological need within us all.

We can use it as an opportunity to attract the right people into our organisations and use it to remind them why they should stay.

What can we do to foster belonging?

Working relationships are about knowing people, not just about knowing the work.

These are just my thoughts on how we can do more to foster belonging.  It doesn’t have to be the most complicated of HR initiatives or even have to appear as a ‘strategic objective’.  However it is more than facilitating a tab behind the bar after work…

  • How can we help individuals know themselves and each other better? Profiling can be a good place to start. MBTI, Lumina Sparks, Predicative Index to name a few examples.
  • How far can we give our teams the opportunity to work on projects where they have to self-regulate themselves, the milestone and the output? In this case, it’s not about success or failure.  It’s the shared experience.  Even sharing in failure is a positive experience in building trust and a sense of belonging.
  • When we are hiring young people straight from school/higher education – we may want to over-index on the opportunities for social interaction and shared experiences. Young people will have been used to (and have taken for granted) the sense of belonging they have felt to their school or class mates.  As part of their assimilation into working life, some may struggle at first, with being a ‘small fish in a very large pond’.  If we can help them in the early days, we can have more productive individuals who quickly feel they are part of the team and organisation they work for.
  • Belonging is built on trust. Whether at an organisational level, colleague to colleague or line manager to team member – the most fundamental part of trust is the ability for us to depend on someone else.  Let’s start with ourselves – how often do we actually do what we say we are going to do?  How dependable and reliable are we?
  • We should continue to work on trust, values and commitment – not because it’s in the ‘in’ thing, but because it can genuinely make a difference. Trust, values and commitment play a big role in our psychological contract with our jobs and the organisations we work for.
  • We should always look for opportunities to be inclusive. Whilst we do need and like to belong to groups and we can (and do) successfully belong to many.   In a work context there should be no ‘them and us’.  Therefore we always need to be aware of our own behaviour as well as calling out the behaviours of others don’t support a sense of team.

In summary

I don’t profess to be an expert in this subject, but I do find it fascinating.  There are implications for both candidate attraction and retention and conveying how someone can ‘belong’ to your team and organisation is something we should seek to reaffirm on a daily basis.

If they are any articles or initiatives that you have seen, experienced or developed that help in this area, I’d love to know.

Thanks to the team at talentleadersconnect for allowing me to have the stage for a moment to share my thoughts on belonging at work.  Their events are free to attend for In-House; Heads of HR/Resourcing, Directors or Managers HR/Resourcing and Senior team members.  I’ve been going to their events for years and have found them extremely helpful.

Their next event is on the 25th May in Manchester and 22nd June, in London so maybe I’ll see you there?


I had some lovely compliments about my trainers.  Past season Limited Edition Nike Air Force 1s (especially for Liberty department store) in case anyone is interested.

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