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What does it mean to belong?

By Steph Swain

How can organisations cultivate that sense of belonging for new starters? Acteon consultant Steph Swain shares her personal experiences.

On Saturday I visited one of my favourite places, the garden centre. I spent hours selecting flowers and shrubs, and with the car boot full, happily headed home to get planting. My purchases were varied: shade-loving hellebores for under the cherry tree, golden thyme to fill in tricky gaps, and silver convolvulus for the sunniest spot. Despite first appearances, these plants do have something in common – they’ll flourish in my garden.  

I’ve learnt what to avoid through trial and error. Box will be destroyed by caterpillars, English bluebells will hybridise with the Spanish ones which stubbornly pop up every year, and lupins will be demolished by slugs. The plants I buy now all belong in my garden. They love the soil and thrive in the spots where I plant them. 

This is how I think of belonging at work. A workplace which engenders a sense of belonging is full of diverse people who thrive in the soil and their particular spot in it.

Engaged employees feel like they belong. McKinsey’s Great Attrition survey found more than half of those who quit their job cite lack of belonging as a reason. Belonging is good for employers and employees alike. It’s linked to a 56% increase in job performance and a 75% reduction in sick leave (Harvard Business Review). It’s no surprise that organisations are spending a lot of time and money trying to identify what actions they can take to foster a greater sense of belonging.

A case study (me!)

I started at Acteon less than a year ago, and I already feel like I’ve put down roots. Here’s my personal perspective on what Acteon did well to cultivate this sense of belonging:

A thorough interview process

By this, I don’t mean a daunting panel which interrogated me about my skillset. The interviews were primarily long conversations with the team’s two directors. They talked about the opportunities and challenges the role would bring, and I was frank about my strengths and weakness. There were writing tasks reflecting the work consultants do, which provided Acteon with greater insight into how I’d perform, and me greater insight into whether I’d enjoy it. I even helped facilitate the annual conference, which revealed a lot about who Acteon is as an organisation. 

Importantly, the recruitment process involved meeting numerous future colleagues on a tour of the building where I got to chat with everyone.   The whole process felt like a mutual exploration of whether Acteon and I were right for each other. A square peg in a round hole will never belong, so checking the fit before I made the leap was essential. 

Continued communication  

There’s normally a gap between accepting and starting a job, where you work your notice period or take your remaining leave, and things can fall quiet. Acteon continued to communicate with me, making me feel like I was already part of the team. A giant halloumi burger at the summer event was a particular highlight.

Office days 

It can be hard to build connections through a webcam. The expectation to come into the office regularly has meant I’ve spent time with new colleagues face-to-face. There’s a weekly team day when we’re generally all in, monthly company working lunches, and various and varied group activities. Colleagues are on hand to offer advice, and I can witness the company culture live and in-person.

There’s no doubt that these human interactions have been fundamental to my sense of belonging.  Yet at times it can feel like a hassle to go into the office, like exercise you know is good for you but can’t motivate yourself to do.  You need something to draw you in. And that’s where the office itself helps. It’s beautifully designed, with a large social area on the ground floor and office and meeting spaces to suit all needs (and body temperatures!). It’s well equipped for hybrid working. You can tell it’s been thought-through. An example is the lockers. Such a small thing, but what an impact. In the past I’ve felt like an unloved packhorse – carrying around my hand cream, paracetamol and emergency cardigan. Hotdesking at Acteon is easy. And whilst we can’t leave photos on the desks, there’s artwork on the walls, plants and flowers on the countertops, and music on at least one level of the building.  It doesn’t feel sterile like many hotdesking spaces – it’s very much alive, and somewhere I actually want to be. 

Bridging the divide

Whilst office-working has its perks, I also enjoy working from home. As a mum of three, I can drop the children at school and still attend a morning meeting.  And those jogging bottoms bought during the pandemic won’t wear themselves. 

I’m not alone in valuing remote work – it’s a deciding factor for nearly 70% of people thinking about a new role (CIPD).  But it can be hard to be your true self virtually. It can feel like we’re all pretending to have quiet, tidy, pet and child free houses, where delivery drivers never knock.

Acteon thinks carefully about how we use technology to bridge the divide between those in the office and those at home. Web cams are on. People make use of chat and reactions (like virtual applause for a job well done).  We even start the weekly team meeting early so those at home can share the pre-meeting coffee break.

A spot in the sun

There are lots of other things I could mention, but these are the top four I’d recommend to any organisation looking to build cohesion and belonging. Like the new additions in my garden, I’ve found my place and I’m ready to flourish!

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