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Several years ago, the Institute For The Future (IFTF) used evidence-based predictions to establish the transformation of businesses from centralized hierarchies to distributed authority and governance.

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This decentralized organizational structure was projected to create more flexibility and greater opportunity for identity, equity, and inclusion – where diversity and innovation flourish. Nothing in this report anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic as an impetus for change.

The year 2020 uncovered underlying problems in the workplace, compelling it to operate differently. Pandemic-related changes mean that the workplace no longer lends itself to brick and mortar or a one-size-fits-all office culture. The distributed workforce requires managers to navigate courageous conversations about healthcare, mental health, and racial equity with the competence of emotional and cultural intelligence while remaining productive and lucrative. 

While the tech industry has discussed empathy over the last few years, there is now a resounding call to action for empathetic leadership over the next decade that will require our industry to build belonging into its business models. This article will lean into best practices from ‘the anatomy of inclusion’ and trends from ‘the biology of belonging’. Together, they represent pillars to redesigning an inclusive workplace in a new normal.

Anatomy of inclusion

The traditional workplace has primarily been represented by a physical building, but in reality, it’s always been a living, breathing organism.

As the core of its infrastructure is exposed, it’s imperative to focus on architectural access, cultivating workplace culture, and leading with wellbeing in the midst of the corporate ‘quarantine theme’ as a result of COVID-19. All of which I will go into more detail about, below. 

The first step in grasping the framework of this new remote business model is to understand and agree that inclusion is a key organizational priority. Diversity does not exist without inclusion. When employees feel included, they feel a sense of belonging that drives increased positive performance results and are able to create collaborative teams that are innovative and engaging. Before asking how this is possible, consider the following tips: 

  1. Architectural access consists of inclusive architecture and architectural accessibility for humanity design – with inclusivity and diversity in mind for every member of a community.

    In practice, this looks like the ability of every member of the business and its clients to access the organization physically and digitally (from doors to documents) – through online and video communications as well as ergonomic efficacy for each worker.

  2. Cultivating culture in the midst of COVID-19 requires a resilient culture, transparent communications, trust, and respect.

    In practice, this looks like a positive workplace that nurtures and shows its appreciation, in turn creating high-potential employees in a sought-after workplace. Ultimately, a cultured and stabilized internal environment.

  3. Leading with wellbeing is more than just focusing on physical and professional health. It’s also mental, spiritual, emotional, and medical health.

    In practice, recognize that it’s important to know that disclosure is not required but workplace policies can be adapted to contribute to safe physical health initiatives and charity events. The most obvious concern is privacy.

Biology of belonging

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Value of Belonging at Work, written in 2019, Carr, Reece, Kellerman, and Robichaux wrote, ‘Social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA. And yet, 40% of people say that they feel isolated at work, and the result has been lower organizational commitment and engagement.’ 

In a nutshell, companies are blowing it. U.S. businesses spend nearly 8 billion dollars each year on diversity and inclusion (D&I) training that miss the mark because they neglect employees' need to feel included. 

Belonging hasn’t always been welcome in the workplace. Connectedness in the workplace cannot be left to technology by taking the temperature of the proverbial room. Our basic needs have shifted. The ripple effect of the current crisis has forced everyone to press the reset button. Intentional inclusion and belonging shift the conversation from passive awareness to actionable acceptance. It’s impossible to exist as a change-maker while never doing anything to make a change or difference. Change will come when we’re willing to question our own fundamental values and beliefs in the areas of inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging.

The following are tips on how to do just that:

  • Engineer empathy-building exercises at work that process exclusion verbally;
  • Seizing the small opportunities to connect and including ERG/BRG (Employee/Business Resource Group) allies to encourage workforce diversity;
  • Checking bias at the door by looking and listening to the employee and the problem from the perspective of its owner;
  • Assuming positive intent by letting every conversation begin with the assumption that everyone wants to do their best work;
  • Being vulnerable, consistent, and accountable by modeling behaviors and characteristics with reciprocity and trust in mind – an exercise in self-awareness.

Benefits of belonging in the workplace include positive disruption to your recruitment pipeline, retention management, social reputation, and observing our current reality when it comes to shaping the future of belonging at work. These and other models for diversity and inclusion will prioritize belonging to exist in a brand-new environment that we’ve never seen before. Belonging will become ‘the new normal’ and be the accepted model of workforce management.