Research shows that small, interpersonal connections matter to building a sense of belonging and organizational culture. As Grace mentioned in her post last week, a central thesis of Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code is that successful groups are created and not innate to the organization. One of the ways organizational culture is created is through belonging cues. These cues include small actions such as profuse eye contact, questions, few interruptions, and small attentive courtesies that add up to an increased sense of belonging over time.

While belonging cues are vital to creating a sense of belonging and positive work environment, many of these traditional cues are difficult to implement during COVID-19. During the past two weeks of the Virginia Sectors Leaders Program, my small group discussed the challenges of creating belonging and vulnerability virtually. Instead of opening doors for others, we let colleagues into our Zoom virtual meetings. We type questions in chat rooms rather than engaging with our colleagues face to face. For new hires, many are entering organizations completely virtually with little to no in-person interaction. In a world becoming increasingly virtual during COVID-19, how do we ensure that our employees (especially new hires) feel a sense of belonging in our organizations? How can we leverage virtual platforms to foster belonging?

Similar to belonging cues in the office, creating a sense of belonging virtually requires several small, intentional, and repeated interactions over an extended period of time. Below are some action steps managers and supervisors can implement to foster belonging in a virtual environment:

Strategies to Foster Belonging Virtually*

Recognition—Continuing to recognize employees increases morale and can make workers feel more secure in a new teleworking environment. Being intentional with recognition, by sending a personalized note or phone call, can help further build belonging.

One-On-Ones—Many of our meetings now consist of Brady Bunch style tiles with anywhere from three to 100+ people on the call. Even when working in smaller teams, it is important to still make time for regular one-on-one check ins with employees. These check-ins offer a break from meetings and make it easier for employees to discuss their concerns and success.

Implement Virtual Team Building—While coffee chats and lunches are difficult to have during COVID-19, virtual team building can still be an effective way to create belonging and collaboration. One great virtual team building exercise is an organization/division-wide trivia game during lunch. Sorting teams by vision can create a greater sense of connectivity within existing teams. Assigning teams randomly can give newer coworkers an opportunity to meet other members of the organization. Virtual happy hours, team lunches and coffee chats can also bolster team building.

Limit Multitasking—Multitasking seems to be more accessible than ever as we juggle multiple screens, video chats, and working from home. One way to limit multitasking is to turn your video on during conference calls. Others seeing your engagement can serve as an accountability check to stay focused on the task at hand. This also helps other employees notice critical belonging cues like eye contact, head nodding, and facial expressions during the meeting.

Create a “virtual water cooler”—In the office, post-meetings generally consist of grabbing some water and discussing how the meeting went with co-workers. In virtual meetings, setting aside 5-10 minutes at the end for employees to discuss concerns, challenges and success can improve the work environment moving forward.

In any organization, it is the small, intentional moments that matter. Taking time during COVID-19 to foster belonging and cooperation will go a long way in ensuring employee engagement moving forward. For more information on the importance of belonging in workplace culture, here are some resources on how to foster belonging and tips for engaging new employees:

  •   DHRM. “Tips--Managing Remote Employees”.
  •   Ferrazzi, Keith. “How to Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2015.
  •   Robison, Jennifer. “COVID-19 Has My Teams Working Remotely: A Guide for Leaders.”, March 12, 2020.
  •   Virginia Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM). “Guidelines for Remote Onboarding,” 2020, 2.
  •   Watkins, Michael D. “Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles.” Harvard Business Review, June 27, 2013.

*adapted from several resources (see references for more details)

Elizabeth Spach is a VMF Fellow currently serving at the Secretary of Natural Resources (SNR). She previously served at the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).