Good Comms

Elements of belonging at work

This blogpost is part of the Belonging is a mindset blog series derived from my academic research on ‘internal communication and belonging in the virtual workplace’ for the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. The data from this study was collected from new hires who started their jobs in the middle of the pandemic and internal communication practitioners. This blogpost is part of my literature review.

Several studies on the sense of belongingness have shown that having it positively impacts one’s emotions. Individuals who feel that they belong show more of their authentic selves and can be more themselves (Perry 2018). Where there is a sense of belonging, individuals thrive, can become their best selves, and also contribute fully in the workplace (Brown 2010; Brown 2019; Johnson 2020). Having strong social connections results in well-being and longer life (Achor 2011; Seligman 2004; Seligman 2012). Feeling safe in a group or a team aids better learning and innovation (Edmondson 1999) not only for the individual but in a group (Murphey et al. 2010).

Filstad et al. (2019) defined belonging at work as “being part of something, the process of becoming through constant mediation between material aspects and social components, the process of experiencing boundaries and the attempt to perform, engage and participate (and find spaces for shared practices) in a workplace” (p. 116).

McClure and Brown (2008) determined three elements that constitute belonging at work through their research. They presented these as time, experience, and self. In their phenomenological research on the meaning of belonging, they were able to define the six elements of belonging at work as follows: (a) being invited and learning to be a part of a work group; (b) connecting with colleagues and wanting to be included; (c) doing meaningful work and being recognised; (d) natural selection at work; competing and being excluded; (e) being needed and finding myself deeply involved in my profession; and (f) reflecting on time, work, and people passing.

McClure & Brown (2008) mentions six elements of belonging at work.

Virtual workers need belonging

Willis (2016) conducted a study on the factors that affect the job satisfaction and outcomes of virtual workers and found five factors that contribute: work-life balance, isolation and belonging, flexibility, resource efficiency, and trust and respect. In her research, 35% of workers claimed that they felt isolated at times while working virtually and emphasised the importance of inclusion and belonging. She also discovered that virtual workers are even more sensitive to the perception of belonging and organisational identity than to trust and respect.

This study confirms Bartel et al. (2012) who found that the job satisfaction and motivation of virtual workers can be negatively impacted when they do not feel a sense of belonging at work. This affects their identification with the organisation, especially during the early period of their tenure, when they need to establish social bonds, reputation, and relationships.

Belle et al. (2015) found that while virtual workers find organisational belonging important, it is not enough to ensure motivation at work. He asserted that a sense of belongingness, “may be experienced through the work, through alignment between self and organisation values and the values of others, or through conscious awareness that belonging to the organisation is a means to an end” (p. 247). He also pointed out that there are several nuances in an individual’s experience of belongingness, due to their identity and chosen actions.

Belonging impacts productivity

Recent practitioner research on belonging at work quantified the positive effects of belonging in better productivity and fewer sick days (BetterUp 2020, House 2021). When an employee feels a sense of belongingness at work, productivity increases by 25%. Where there is a feeling of rejection, the productivity level of an employee decreases by 56%. Ogbonnaya et al. (2018) note that where employees have a high sense of belongingness at work, an organisation is also deemed to be more resilient. 

If belongingness in the workplace increases job satisfaction and motivation and results in positive work outcomes, I can postulate that a sense of non-belongingness thwarts all of these possibilities. Research supports this idea.

Exclusion leads to low self-concept

A sense of non-belongingness in the workplace makes people feel left out, that they do not matter and do not fit in, which can lead to a lack of trust, low self-concept, and eventually not contributing (Waller 2020). Several studies (Ozcelik and Barsade 2011; Firoz and Chaudhary 2021) found out that loneliness at work led to poor performance, lack of creativity, and lower organisational commitment. A recent study (Bartholomeusz et al. 2021) focused on workplace loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic and found that the majority of employees felt lonely during the pandemic, with effects on their commitment and performance.

Cockshaw et al. (2013) assert that non-belongingness at work contributes to depressive symptoms. The worst that could happen in a workplace where one cannot find connection with colleagues, identification, and meaning would be taking one’s own life. According to Joiner (2005, 2010), people choose suicide when they feel that they are burdensome or do not belong. Boccio and Macari (2013) claim that improving the sense of belongingness can improve such situations and stop workers from committing suicide.

What can we do?

Can we change this dynamic through internal communication? Words have been known to change minds (Charvet 1995; Mercer 2002; Phoel 2006). This study posits that internal communication can make a change where belonging at work is lacking. Where internal communication is most effective, it will not only manage an organisation’s messaging but also influence the emotions and motivation level of its employees.

Next up

In the next blogpost, we will define internal communication.


  • You will find a full list of references here.
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