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Employee Experience

Work futurist Andrea Robb: ‘growth starts with belonging’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal, chats with Andrea Robb, HR Consultant and Work Futurist, about belonging, the percentage of people who can state their personal purpose, and “the clues” approach to discovering your own passion.

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Andrea Robb

Early reflections

Organizations rightly focus on employee engagement as a way to reduce costly turnover, bolster talent pipelines, and improve productivity.

In a recent conversation with Qualtrics' Jesse Purewal on the Breakthrough Builders Podcast, talent pro and work futurist Andrea Robb challenged some conventional thinking when she asserted that the engagement drivers organizations should be focused on are company purpose and employee belonging.

She recounts how this approach to employee experience was shaped by her time at Airbnb.

“The purpose of Airbnb, at the end of the day, is to help anyone belong anywhere in the world. We got curious around what it would mean to define the belonging journey on the inside, because if employees are meant to design a platform of experiences that enable hosts to help strangers belong in their homes or belong in new communities through Airbnb experiences, then we have to be thinking about the belonging journey of the employee. Intuitively I thought ‘belonging’ must be a deeper, more meaningful measurement than even engagement.”

Qualtrics 2021 employee experience trends report confirms Andrea’s intuition, treating belonging as a driver of engagement, with the finding that traditional top drivers of engagement–mainstays such as ‘trust in company leaders’ or ‘career growth opportunities’ – were overtaken by ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘pride in company purpose’ in 2020.

As to the ‘why’ behind this shift,  Lindsay Johnson, Qualtrics XM Scientist, posits that multiple global crises in 2020 have driven a shift in the way employees relate to their work and the organizations that employ them:

“In the wake of a pandemic, calls for racial justice, and unprecedented change, it’s even more important for your people to feel they have the space to be their authentic selves. And not only that, but that what they’re a part of is having a positive impact on the world. It makes sense that these ideals are becoming integral to the employee experience.”

She, along with others expect this emphasis on belonging and purpose to continue through 2021 and beyond.

Behind the breakthroughs

Diversity and inclusion efforts are beneficiaries of this evolution in employee priorities, but Andrea counsels leaders not to conflate diversity and inclusion with belonging:

“First of all, I think it's important to just understand the difference between diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Diversity is having lots of different people in the room. Inclusion is being invited to the dance. But belonging is being able to dance to your own music and dance in your own way.”

This goes beyond acceptance of the individual and on to a celebration of all that comprises their individuality. And employees who feel this feel empowered to bring their uninhibited creativity and expertise to bear on the organization’s most pressing problems:

“Through research we learned that when you reach a true sense of belonging, people use words like, ‘When I felt I belonged the most was when I could be unedited’; ‘I didn't have to worry about the words I was using. I was my full self, warts and all’; ‘I knew that people would accept me for me because I was connected to and aligned with the purpose’; “People appreciated my passion and my expertise”. And one word that was used that was so compelling for us was when someone said, ‘when I felt like I most belong, I felt like me, amplified’.

Following clues, creating belonging

Andrea’s first hints of her future passion for building organizations that foster purpose and authenticity came in childhood. Navigating a complex organizational structure from a position of vulnerability–in her case, as the youngest in a large family–helped her hone the skills later used to diagnose and guide organizations in her quest, as she puts it, to “design the company you’d want your kids to work for”.

Her use of “kids” in this explanation of her personal quest is still apropos even when the analogy is stretched to equate organizations to families. It is often in a family, or a group of friends, that many individuals feel the most authentic and natural. This sets a daunting bar for organizations to strive for, and the path to the top is fraught with pitfalls.

Andrea tells us it is not just cutthroat company cultures or inauthentic “purpose washing” that scuttle efforts to foster belonging. It is also an unchecked obsession with the customer at the expense of the employee:

“The more and more I looked into it, I started to realize that companies that focused on the customer actually had slower growth rates than the ones who focused their design around belonging, purpose and the alignment between employees and the company. When that is the focus, employees are naturally driven to bring their love and passion for the business, and all of their passion and strengths to solving problems for customers. There were these vast improvements in growth rates when companies were focused on purpose and belonging. It’s as if there is an unlock there”

Perhaps the next major shift we see will be belonging replacing engagement as the primary outcome metric.

Listen to Andrea chat with our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.

Listen to the full conversation with Andrea