By 2025, it is estimated that Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce [1]. As the largest generation in today’s workforce, they are already (re)shaping the working world in significant ways. They’re pushing employers to harness the once-unimaginable power of advanced technologies to automate business operations, improve communications, and connect directly with clients and communities. They’re also holding employers accountable for aligning profitability with corporate values of environmental sustainability, climate change, wealth inequality, and racial justice in new and different ways [2].

Millennials–generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 [3]–are all-too-often portrayed as entitled and socially disengaged even at work due, in part, to intergenerational misperceptions about the ubiquitous distraction of their smart devices [4], in my opinion. It’s undeniably true that Millennials, like so many others, feel lost without their phones. One early study coined the term nomophobia referring to a prevalent condition marked by heightened anxiety and worry associated with being away from one’s smartphone, losing WiFi connectivity, or having to wait because the battery died [5]. (Interesting fact: Did you know the average American checks their phone nearly 100 times per day? That’s once every 10 minutes! [6]). But the reality is that Millennials, like so many others, are looking for so much more, namely meaning and purpose in their work.

One of the key things that Millennials crave is a sense of belonging in the workplace. This need for connection is often overlooked in favor of other things like salary, benefits, and job security, which are critically important. Even more so in light of recent studies revealing that some Millennials (and Gen Z) worry about losing a job or running out of money [7]. But the truth is that Millennials are looking for more than just a paycheck. They want to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves…that they truly belong at work, just as they are.

So how can organizations create a sense of workplace belonging for Millennials and others? The key is to focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion. By creating a workplace that is inclusive of all, you can create a sense of belonging for everyone.

What’s Workplace Belonging?

Definitions abound and are just as diverse as the workplaces themselves. Generally, industrial-organizational scholars define sense of belonging at work (hereafter, ‘workplace belonging’) as the extent to which employees feel accepted, respected, included, valued and supported by others in the work environment [8]. From this employees derive a sense of pride, accomplishment, joy, and satisfaction, to name a few. A recent report by Coqual, a global non-profit think tank, further explained workplace belonging as feeling seen and celebrated for one’s unique contributions, meaningfully connected to coworkers, supported in daily work, and proud of the organization’s vision, mission, and values.

Stressful work-related situations can deplete physical and psychological energy, deteriorate interpersonal relationships, erode confidence, and reduce, if not inhibit, workplace belonging. On the other hand, positive and affirming environments marked by support can energize employees, strengthen friendships, catalyze confidence and boost belonging at work. Taken together, workplace belonging not only improves employee well-being and mental health but benefits organizational health vis a vis high(er) morale, team cohesion, and lower absenteeism [9].

How to Foster Workplace Belonging for All

There are several steps employers and leaders can follow to take actions that will help boost or foster workplace belonging for staff, while also building a more equitable and sustainable world.

  1. Support employee mental health and well-being. Recall that 41% of Millennials (and 46% of Gen Zs) report feeling stress “all or most of the time” in Deloitte’s large-scale poll based on 14,655 Millennials and 8,273 Gen Zs in 45 different countries. About one-third of all respondents confessed to taking time off work because of stress and anxiety since start of the pandemic. To this end, employers and team leaders could create or hold space where people feel comfortable speaking up about stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Human resource and talent management professionals should provide state-of-art resources for managing such issues at work. By supporting employee health and well-being and making it a “top priority,” leaders double-down on “the bottom line” in ways that are human-centered, trauma-informed, and authentic.
  2. (Re)commit to protecting the environment. Environmental justice remains a top priority for people, especially young adults. In fact, over one-quarter of Deloitte respondents say they’ve initiated or enriched relationships with businesses and brands whose products and services align with their personal values, benefitting the global environment. To this end, leaders and entrepreneurs might start interoffice recycling programs, offer public transportation vouchers, “no print” days, and paid time-off (PTO) for staff to participate in community service, volunteerism, and social activism. Be creative–one of my clients sponsored office-wide community service microgrants that allowed employees to nominate local grassroots groups and charities for a $500 gift to underwrite outreach efforts. By aligning corporate values with profitability and finding new ways to (re)commit to environmental, social, and/or racial justice, leaders invest the time, energy, and resources needed to boost workplace belonging.
  3. Publicly celebrate employees for their contributions. In my research focusing on sense of belonging in educational and corporate settings [10], I’ve uncovered data linking belonging to mattering. Major elements of mattering include dependence, importance, and ego-extension, to name a few. That is, people feel like they belong when they feel like they matter. And they feel like they matter when they sense that others need them because they play an important role (in the group) and others care about them and their success (i.e., ego-extension), almost as much as they do. Applied to workplaces, employers boost belonging when they acknowledge the contributions of staff and teams. Leaders go the “extra mile” when they publicly celebrate, credit, and praise staff for their contributions and ideas, tying back to the group’s overall vision, mission, and goals. For example, one of our corporate clients hired us to lead their team through a strategic (re)visioning retreat that would give way to 5-year planning. In one session, Geoff, a newly-hired African American junior sales broker, shared fresh ideas about using Slack to facilitate interoffice chats, building alliances with local historically Black colleges/universities (HBCUs) to diversify their intern pool, and making ‘team-building’ an agenda item for weekly staff meetings. Right afterward, the CEO and several other senior team members publicly thanked Geoff, affirmed the value of his promising ideas, and vowed to “give him credit” for these organizational improvements once implemented. Fighting back tears and overwhelmed with gratitude, Geoff replied: “Wow, thank you for truly seeing me as part of the team and seeing value in what I bring to the table. It means more than you know.” By acknowledging people’s presence, affirming their contributions and giving credit where it’s due, leaders can help foster environments for workplace belonging.

Author(s)

  • Terrell L. Strayhorn, PhD

    Contributor, Thrive Global; Professor

    Illinois State University

    Terrell Strayhorn is a professor, public speaker, writer, entrepreneur, and influencer in the field of education and community engagement. He contributes to Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Diverse Issues, Thrive Global, The Tennessean, Charlotte Observer, and more. Dr. Strayhorn is a leading DEI expert and specialize in helping corporations and institutions build cultures of belonging that truly unleash human potential. He is Professor of Higher Education and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University. He's also Visiting Scholar in the School of Education at Virginia Union University (VUU) and Director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs.