Fostering a Culture of Belonging in a Hybrid Setting: Q&A with Dr Natalie Baumgartner from Achievers

February 15, 20221:56 pm1019 views

For so long, a sense of belonging is developed through physical interactions. In a workplace setting, it can take the form of having small talks in between tasks, exchanging jokes during lunch, or simply chit-chatting over coffee in the morning. But then the unthinkable happened, the world went into global lockdown, and offices were closed. With most people shifting to remote working, many employees begin to experience an intense loss of belonging and connection towards the workplace. Even as businesses are reopening and adopting hybrid arrangements, concerns around lack of belonging and engagement among employees remain.

Today, HR in Asia sat in a candid discussion with Dr Natalie Baumgartner, Chief Workforce Scientist at Achievers to seek an answer for this matter. Stay tuned!


  • Dr Natalie, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in how and where we work since the pandemic, with more employees requesting flexible or hybrid work arrangements. Do you notice a similar sentiment among your team members?

Answer: The business arena has certainly changed during the pandemic, and the appreciation and adoption of flexible work are some of the main factors that are now a fundamental part of the new way of working. Historically, flexible work options were often fought for by working parents and employees with disabilities. It is also used to be commonplace for tech companies, allowing their teams to work from anywhere. Now, a far broader population of workers has come to recognize that there are advantages for them in these types of working arrangements as well, leading to the option of working remotely becoming an expectation of job seekers.

Here at Achievers, we’ve always had flexible work options, but have since put a more formalized program in place, in anticipation of an eventual return to the office. Our policy has been to set such that two days a week will be “in office” for those that have assigned desks — these days will focus on team activities, in-person meetings, and will include social events like our Thursday Throwdowns. Outside of those days, departments and teams can determine the work arrangements that suit them best, offering a combination of in-person interactions for brainstorming and team-building, with the flexibility of work-from-anywhere for other days of the week. This policy was developed with input from our team members and will evolve as needed if we find that it isn’t working for the majority.

  • Based on your observations, what has urged these changes in employee expectations?

Answer: Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have undergone shifts in their priorities. Health and safety have become major concerns among employees and many cite it as the main reason for wanting a delayed return to the office. Mental wellbeing and work-life balance have also emerged as major talking points in recent months given the renewed focus on self-care.

Now that we’ve had a taste for the benefits of a hybrid work model, employees have expressed their desire for such arrangements to be implemented on a permanent basis moving into the future. A recent study noted that 82% of employees in Singapore want flexible remote working options to remain moving forward. From decreases in commuting time to a greater sense of autonomy over their schedules, many now view hybrid working models as a “best-of-both-worlds” scenario — one where they can enjoy the benefits of both remote and in-person working at a pace that works best for them.

  • It has been said that the more dispersed a team is, the less effective leadership becomes. What is your opinion on this? Is there such a thing as the “leadership cost” of remote working?

Answer: The shift to remote and hybrid working has undoubtedly presented a new set of challenges for employees and company leaders alike. For instance, leaders today might have more difficulty obtaining complete oversight over how their teams are functioning in real-time, and this is particularly so for those who previously relied on vague measures like their intuition to guide their leadership style in face-to-face environments.

Nevertheless, organizations have responded quickly to address these challenges through rapid digitalization. Many have introduced technology platforms such as Slack and Zoom to maintain constant communication channels with team members. Employee recognition platforms like Achievers can also be used to provide feedback to employees in a more streamlined and immediate manner, thus surpassing the limitations of a physical workplace.

Critically, company leaders must be able to adapt their mindsets and equip themselves with the necessary capabilities to succeed in this new environment. This entails receiving adequate training in areas like employee recognition, professional development in a hybrid world, and remote coaching, as well as promoting a culture of open feedback and recognition throughout the company. By making a conscious effort to put these into practice, leaders will be able to better face the challenges presented by a geographically-dispersed team and remote working.

  • Among the concerns around adopting a hybrid work model is the inability to instill a sense of belonging among employees. When coworkers no longer share the same physical workspace, how can organisations work towards developing social cohesion and shared trust?

Answer: Indeed, one of the main concerns that employees have expressed across this period of remote working has been the lack of social interaction with their colleagues at work, with 54% of Singaporean employees citing it as their primary driver for wanting to return to the office.

According to our 2021 Culture Report on Belonging at Work, an employee’s sense of belonging is driven by five main factors: feeling welcomed, known, included, supported, and connected. The reduced social interactions that emerged as a by-product of hybrid work models may negatively affect an employee’s experience of connection and community, and this can subsequently lead to diminished productivity, satisfaction, and retention.

Organizations must make a conscious effort to promote the development of social cohesion within a remote setting. Some typical bonding activities like team lunches can simply be shifted online. However, other organic interactions, such as informal water coolers or pantry chats, are not as easy to recreate at a distance. Yet, those types of opportunities for organic interactions go a long way in helping employees build meaningful relationships at work, and, so, must be reimagined for a virtual setting. This is certainly easier said than done, but the effort invested will ultimately foster a greater sense of belonging among all employees, regardless of where or how they are working.

Instilling a culture of peer-to-peer recognition is another highly effective means through which a sense of belonging can be fostered. Our research has shown that employees who have been recently recognized are almost five times more likely to feel a strong sense of belonging compared to those that have never been recognized. By normalizing the practice of regular and visible peer-to-peer recognition, organizations can thus provide an additional avenue for employees to receive the visibility and support that they require from their community, thus building positive reinforcement cycles that can help them to be their best at the workplace.

  • Is it possible to instill a sense of belonging among employees if your organisation is in a state of flux because of the pandemic?

Answer: Absolutely, developing a sense of belonging at work has never been more important — and there are concrete steps that organizations can take to instill the experience of belonging in their workforce even during these uncertain times. Setting a proper foundation for evolving employee expectations during the pandemic is important, and the key here is to listen — employee sentiment fluctuates much more than usual during unsteady times, and it is important to understand evolving needs and concerns. Companies need to do more frequent check-ins with staff and be flexible with their policies to support changing expectations. Managers play a crucial role in this, with our 2021 Culture Report noting that employees with a supportive manager are 2.2 times more likely to feel a sense of belonging.

Restructuring compensation and performance evaluations around a shorter time period — or what works best for your company’s employees — is another way to motivate and instill a sense of belonging among employees by supporting their changing needs in a changing environment. Redesign and reevaluate your compensation models and incentives to reflect what employees are grappling with today, and be ready to change them again should the situation call for it.

Finally, it is important to provide full transparency to employees about the organization’s plans for the future, and the role that employees have to play in it. Keeping employees in the loop regarding key decision-making processes goes a long way in fostering a sense of inclusion, and can also help to alleviate some of the anxiety people are feeling about their jobs, thus improving employee morale and retention.

  • Employees who spend more time in the office might exhibit different levels of belonging compared to those that spend more time at home. How can HR leaders bridge the gap between these two different cultures, which may have resulted from the implementation of a hybrid work model?

Answer: With employees being offered the flexibility to work in locations of their choosing, differences in individual preferences and priorities could lead to a rise of two contrasting cultures. Given its seeming inevitability, this presents an urgent problem that company leaders must address from the get-go.

Communication becomes the first major area of focus, and organizations must ensure that both groups of employees are given access to open channels through which they can both share and receive information. Thankfully, many organizations had already adopted the use of platforms like Slack, Teams, and Zoom during the period of remote working, making it a matter of ensuring that these channels remain actively used, to avoid discrepancies in the information being shared between the two groups.

Next, managers in the office must make a conscious effort to reach out to employees working from home. Bearing in mind the saying that goes “out of sight, out of mind”, company leaders and managers should look to incorporate regular check-ins or feedback sessions with their remote employees into their workflow, which will help to avoid feelings of being left behind or neglected, and drive a greater sense of belonging.

Finally, cross-collaboration should be encouraged between employees of the two groups where possible. An important aspect of the employee experience, this can not only provide them with regular interaction with their teammates but afford them a greater understanding of the other group’s workflow, thus helping to bridge the gap and unite the two differing cultures under a common goal.

  • How can an organisation tell if a hybrid work model is the right one for them, or vice versa?

Answer: Hybrid work models have numerous benefits, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution that works for all organizations. The key is to listen to your employees — what works for them will work for the organization. Doing frequent sentiment analysis and check-ins with staff to understand their needs will help companies understand what is the right fit for them.

This evaluation effort should also include regularly measuring the effectiveness of your hybrid work model through pulse surveys or continuous listening tools. This gives company leaders the information they need to understand how their current model is working for their employees, and whether there is a need for adjustment based on changing sentiments or shifts in employee priorities.

Most importantly, going in with the mindset that this is a fluid situation is crucial during these unprecedented times as we don’t know if what works for companies right now will still be the right fit next year. It is critically important to maintain a flexible mindset and remind employees that everyone has to be prepared to evolve as the situation changes.

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About

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner is the Chief Workforce Scientist at Achievers, the progressive choice for employee voice and recognition solutions that accelerates a culture of performance. In her role, she is responsible for driving the translation of engagement and culture research and theory into SaaS-based software, helping businesses achieve goals that advance their performance. Dr. Baumgartner is an expert in understanding how employee engagement and values alignment can drive strategic business outcomes, having spent her career advising companies of all sizes on issues relating to company culture.

Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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