Key Practices to Foster a Culture of Belonging in a Hybrid World

By Roberta Sydney


Online Article Director Education

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend toward hybrid work. In fact, 52 percent of employees surveyed in an April 2021 McKinsey & Co. study now prefer a hybrid or flexible work schedule; only 37 percent want to work on-site full time. The new challenge for companies is how to create feelings of belonging and inclusion with a fully or partially virtual workforce. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, below are ten practices that forward-thinking companies are deploying to build cultures that foster belonging. 

1. Be clear with all stakeholders. Boards should work with management to decide on and commit to a work modality that suits the firm given the industry, type of work, and type of talent required. Are you a virtual company that meets on occasion? Are you a fully remote company? Or are you a remote-friendly or hybrid company? These are some of the questions facing firms today as they grapple with the changing dynamics of work, workforce, and workplace. Forward-thinking companies will decide which they are—and declare it proudly—which will allow them to attract and retain the talent that they require to thrive in the marketplace. 

2. Create a robust virtual orientation and onboarding system. This should include mentoring for new employees. Small details matter. Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, says to“write authentic digital communications.” In her book, Dhawan suggests that when someone is new to your team, send them a welcome message on their first day or after a big meeting. Boards should encourage management to let new employees know how excited they are to work with them. Dhawan says that authentic digital communication is achieved when you are yourself, so leaders may choose to use emojis and exclamation points if they like them, or call new employees if they prefer.

3. Mix it up. Management should consider orchestrating virtual meetings between people from different departments. If everyone is not meeting in person, it is still possible to get to know people outside their department and outside their own four walls. Innovation and collaboration are enhanced when people form relationships across an organization.

4. Create intentional social opportunities. Without a physical workspace where employees can gather, what are employees—and even the board—supposed to do? The answer, according to Dhawan, is to create time to informally chat and check in. She notes that it doesn’t have to be a strictly planned social gathering, but five to ten minutes at the beginning of a team meeting will do. The team should feel comfortable acknowledging and discussing that they have lives outside work.

5. Initiate office hours for drop-in opportunities. It is no longer easy to pop across the hall for a quick question or ask someone to walk into your office for feedback. Managers can hold regular office hours when their team can book 5-10 minute slots. These become the opportunity to “drop in” for a few minutes, rather than needing to formally schedule longer meetings which are harder to schedule. Board members may also wish to institute this practice with the C-suite.

6. Incorporate your people into town hall or large group meetings. Boards can encourage management to consider acknowledging and recognizing individuals during large group meetings to showcase achievements. This will help people throughout the company learn about who else works for the organization and what they do. 

7. Support employee resource groups. These are a vital way to allow for individuals with more niche interests or backgrounds to find and support one another across the organization.

8. Conduct regular employee surveys. Employee surveys reveal much about morale, culture, and many other elements of employees’ work-life experience. Management should review the results with the board at a company level as well as by tenure, department, gender, and ethnicity to understand employee satisfaction levels and where there may be challenges to address.

9. Track and measure employee retention by tenure and demographics. Telltale signs of talent problems can be uncovered by ensuring that the board (and the human capital committee, if there is one) looks at retention rates by tenure as well as by demographics. If the tenure of those departing is very short, especially in certain demographic groups or teams, then it’s likely a warning indicator that these departing individuals did not feel welcomed. Make sure as a board member to ask what is being done to increase the feeling of belonging and continue to watch these numbers to see if the desired results are achieved.

10. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge. Salary is only one way companies can show that they value employees. Acknowledgement, however, goes further toward creating a feeling of belonging, especially when hybrid or fully remote employees feel less “seen.” A sincere thank you and genuine applause helps motivate employees and helps them feel that they belong as a valued and recognized part of the organization.

Creating a feeling of belonging is essential in this new environment of hybrid and remote-friendly work. Given the Great Resignation and the rise of gig and nomadic workers, it is important for boards and management teams to determine what is right for their companies to attract and retain talent, as well as to get the best from that talent when they work with your company, wherever they may be doing that work.

Roberta Sydney is a seasoned board director and former CEO serving as the lead director of Kiavi, the leading technology and lender solution for real estate investors.

Roberta Sydney, NACD.DC, is a seasoned board director and former CEO serving as board chair of HEI Civil, a private, multistate, civil construction company.