Employee Experience

Belonging: The new top driver of employee engagement in 2021

Belonging has emerged as the top employee experience driver linked to engagement and well-being. Learn how this new driver should influence your 2021 HR priorities.

Get the report: Explore the trends shaping the employee experience in 2021

After a year of organizational disruption, physical separation, global health and environmental crises, a renewed call for racial justice, and divisive political rhetoric, what people want most is to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

When we spoke to people as part of our global study of more than 11,800 participants at the end of 2020, a sense of belonging emerged as the strongest driver of employee engagement – ahead of typical drivers like trust in leadership and ability for career growth. In 2021, we expect this desire for belonging to not only grow, but to completely reshape the employee experience.

Here’s a closer look at what it means to belong, what drives belonging, and how to foster a sense of belonging at your organization.

What is belonging?

Like food and shelter, belonging is a basic human need. It represents a connection with people or place. In a sea of uncertainty, employees feeling like they belong is the one anchor that can strengthen your organization. For many of us, our connection to our work and our colleagues has been a haven from chaos; a place – and a community – to belong to.

We all know what it feels like to belong, or to fit in with others.

Feeling like you can be your unique and authentic self at work and also connected to those around you fulfills our core need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships with others.

Belonging is also highly correlated to engagement. According to our research, only 20% of employees who feel they don’t belong are engaged versus 91% of those who feel they do – that’s three and a half times more. A sense of belonging not only meets your employees’ basic needs, it inspires their work and drives better business results.

What drives belonging at work?

During our research one major influence on belonging rose to the top: managers. They play a pivotal role in being the champion for their people.

Our research shows that managers directly influence a feeling of belonging in their teams. Employees who trust their managers, believe that they care about them as individuals, and listen to their perspectives experience a high sense of belonging. Feeling supported in adapting to organizational changes is one of the top influences on having a sense of belonging.

Read more: 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report

While our understanding of belonging continues to evolve, we know that it is a key component of inclusion, which has been proven many times to have great outcomes for both employees and business. This year has repeatedly reminded us of the importance of focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, as well as growing expectations from employees, that this will be an operational imperative in the companies they want to work for.

How does belonging impact employee well-being?

In turn, a sense of belonging has a positive effect on an important aspect of employee experience – well-being. People who feel like they belong are almost three times as likely to have a greater sense of well-being: 78% versus 28%.

In order for employees to feel like they belong, employers must demonstrate they care with actions.

Thivia Mogan, XM Scientist at Qualtrics

“This is about getting the basics right. Treating employees with respect, taking action on their feedback, and recognizing their contributions are ways to show employees that they matter. We cannot expect employees to be well, let alone thrive, in a toxic workplace.”

Our study also suggests that employees who live alone may garner more of their sense of belonging and community from their colleagues and friends. With that stripped away due to the pandemic and remote work, they may be more vulnerable than those with families to losing their sense of belonging.

How to foster belonging in the workplace

Not sure where to start with fostering a sense of belonging at your organization? First, look at your organization’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Our research shows that employee pride in CSR – that is, the company’s efforts to have a positive impact on the world – plays a major role in fostering a sense of belonging. It is also a top driver of employee engagement just behind belonging.

Other factors that people say make them feel they have a sense of belonging at their organization include:

  • Open and honest communication
  • Feeling like a valued member of the team
  • Feeling supported in adapting to organizational change
  • A perception that they can be themselves at work
  • Belief that their company is one where everyone can succeed to their full potential, no matter who they are

Find out more ways to support belonging through workforce DEI

Bringing your authentic self to work

Increasing belonging alone is not a silver bullet solution. While it can be a powerful driver of employee engagement, this may not be a consistent experience in a diverse organization, where demographic factors can have a huge impact on experience and access to opportunities that enable employees to thrive. Integrating into a company without feeling that you can bring your authentic self to work is not inclusion, it’s assimilation.

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.

Lindsay Johnson, XM Scientist at Qualtrics

“And not only that, but 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.”

All organizations are different, and all the people within them have different needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for fostering belonging in the workplace. What’s important is to listen to what your individual people need – and then action that feedback to meet their needs.


Get all the insights from the 2021 Employee Trends Report