Want to keep your young talent motivated? Then build a culture of belonging

4 minute read

The quality of the social relationships your employees have at work is key to keeping them engaged – and no more so than for younger generations

Denise Kirwan and Robyn Tingley

Creating a sense of employee belonging

It’s true that younger employees want a lot of things that our current workplaces often aren’t equipped or prepared to deliver, like work/life balance, constant learning top ups, and help with student debt. But who knew that a greater sense of belonging just might eclipse them all?

While employers everywhere have been adjusting in recent years to retain employees and unlock higher levels of engagement, the key could be right in the mirror. Interestingly, our latest research tells us that as employers think about building a culture that keeps younger generations motivated, they should examine the quality of the social relationships their employees have at work. It turns out that all of those birthday parties, group meditation sessions and company social events really do matter after all.

In focus groups GlassSKY conducted with over 100 career starters, in fields ranging from forestry engineering to financial services and marketing, to home construction, and even in transport and trucking, the need for stronger social connections at work kept rising to the top as a key element of what keeps employees feeling engaged and like they belong.

Participants could be heard saying things like: “We want to meet our co-workers’ children.” “We want to go bowling together after work.” “We want them to like us enough to spend meaningful time with us inside and outside of work, and to give us advice about life.”

How did we get here?

Consider this. Millennials are the most likely of any generation to have been raised by one parent. They are least likely to engage in organized religion. They are delaying major decisions like marriage and children. They are often in freelance or virtual environments, isolating them from other co-workers. Constant social media keeps them connected with lots of people but at a very superficial level, and worst of all, over half say they are at risk of high levels of anxiety and depression. While it's early, Gen Z is looking like it will follow a similar pattern. It’s no wonder they are asking employers to slow down and connect authentically.

These are trends that have industry leaders sitting up and taking notice. The world’s largest veterinary hospital is Banfield Pet Hospital headquartered in Portland, Oregon. “With over 18,000 associates dispersed across 1,000 locations, we know that we’ve got to keep our people connected to each other and to the business in new ways,” says Nona Scheumack, senior director people analytics & effectiveness.

Building diverse communities

Earlier this year Banfield activated four diversity resource groups to build communities around women in leadership, next generation, Hispanic associates and a PRIDE group focused on the LGBTQ community.

“As traditional community hubs have eroded, we’re re-creating them within the company culture. And it goes beyond investing in traditional mixers, parades, and social events. We’re empowering these groups to identify ways for us to build a sense of belonging for each of these critical constituents within the broader corporate culture, and for these groups to contribute to the design of go-to-market strategies, corporate social responsibility programmes, and recruitment campaigns. It’s a powerful model that we’re tapping into to create a stronger sense of place for our associates because we believe that will let us unlock tremendous potential and innovation,” says Scheumack.

Purpose and wellness

On the other end of the spectrum is Tracy Bell, founder of Millennia TEA in New Brunswick, Canada. Her company is scaling up to meet demand after her flash-freezing innovation won major global attention at the World Tea Expo in 2017.

“Ours is a business driven by purpose around wellness, quality and fair trade for our farmers,” says Bell. “Employees who are attracted to us don’t come for pay and benefits. As a start-up, we simply can’t compete with the major global tea brands. Top talent wants to work with us because they are attracted to being part of something bigger than themselves, to belong to a family atmosphere that is globally connected. We have a strong bond as a team.

"We mentor each other, break bread together often, and we truly care about each other and our families. That attitude extends all the way through the supply chain to our farmer partners in Kenya. As we grow, we’re learning that it’s the intangibles – the connection, the vision, the excitement around aligning our efforts to create something new – that matter as much as compensation, benefits and other traditional HR metrics.”

Whether big or small, there’s no doubt that the traditional role of the employer is changing. This approach to fostering belonging won’t cost a lot, but it will cost time. It will require a more hands-on and patient management style than we’ve grown accustomed to in recent decades. Companies that understand this will ultimately reap the benefits that come with stronger retention and higher levels of engagement. To belong will be to succeed. 

Published 1 May 2019

It's the intangibles – the connection, the vision, the excitement around aligning our efforts to create something new – that matter as much as compensation, benefits and other traditional HR metrics

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