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How To Build a Sense of Community in the Workplace

When your employees feel they’re part of a community, you see a happier, healthier, more engaged workforce—and a better bottom line. And right now, building community in the workplace is critical as we adjust to a new, hybrid world of work. If you’ve been wondering how to build a sense of community in your workplace, check out the ideas below.

We tend to think of “community” as the place where we live. But workplaces are a type of community, too. The degree to which employees feel valued, connected, and fulfilled in that community has important implications for both the organizational culture and the business’s health. Before we get into how to build a sense of community at work, we’ll explore why community matters in the workplace and discuss the benefits of nurturing a sense of community.

Why Community in the Workplace Matters

Human beings are, by nature, social creatures. And we rely on interactions with others to fulfill our need for connection and belonging. Considering we spend almost a third of our lives on the job, it makes good sense for organizations to focus on community as one way to improve workplace culture and enhance the well-being of the workforce.

Community is especially important these days as employees re-evaluate what’s important in life and exercise choice in the kinds of organizations they want to work for. As we’re seeing with the Great Resignation—or Great Reshuffle—employees will leave their jobs if they don’t feel the culture supports their values or fulfills their basic need for meaning and connection.

And lest you think that building community in the workplace is just a “nice to have,” a report by Microsoft argues that rebuilding social capital and culture as we adjust to a hybrid world is a business imperative. Dr. Nancy Baym, a researcher at Microsoft, maintains that “cultivating a culture of kindness, fun, and cooperative collaboration is just as important to the bottom line as your daily to-do list.”

So with that as a backdrop, let’s take a deeper look at why community is important in the workplace.

Community provides a sense of belonging.

According to the Society for Human Resources, belonging is the “feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place.”1 It’s a basic human requirement and appears right in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Today, belonging is fundamental as we seek to diversify our workplaces and ensure that they are inclusive for everyone.

It turns out that belonging at work is also good for the bottom line. According to a study by Deloitte Consulting, feeling like you belong can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in sick days. It’s hard to argue with that!

Community gives us a feeling of purpose.

Employees are increasingly questioning their “why.” They want to connect work to something that feels meaningful, whether it’s their personal values, the company’s mission, or charitable work in the broader community. This is especially important to younger generations, who desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Research by Gallup finds that while their compensation is important and must be fair, millennials are motivated more by mission and purpose than by a paycheck.

The sheer nature of helping our colleagues in a mutually supportive community can also give us that sense of purpose. The Academy of Management Journal noted that workplace connections are not only crucial for career advancement and emotional support, but also fulfill a very human desire to serve and give back to others.

Community can help increase psychological safety—and vice versa.

Psychological safety is the shared belief held by team members that others will not embarrass, reject, or punish anyone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s a big buzzword these days, but psychological safety isn’t something you achieve overnight. Instead, a psychologically safe environment is often a by-product of a workplace that already has a strong sense of community where workers have each other’s backs. So, in other words, it works both ways—you must have a good community to feel psychologically safe, and you must practice psychological safety to have a healthy community!

Community combats loneliness.

Loneliness in America has been on the rise since the 1980s, and the workplace is partly to blame. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted in a Washington Post article, “Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time. That includes the workplace.”2

A sense of community in the workplace can help ward off loneliness. A study by Cigna found that people who don’t have good connections at work are ten times lonelier than people who report having good relationships with their coworkers. And when organizations actively seek to build community, thereby decreasing loneliness, there are other benefits to the business, like greater retention and lower healthcare costs.

Now that we’ve covered why building community at work is important, let’s dive into some tangible examples of how to build community at work.

How To Create a Sense of Community in the Workplace

There are many examples of community in the workplace that create and maintain meaningful connections between coworkers. What’s important is to be authentic and intentional, and provide a variety of ways to connect—as not all employees will be able to engage in the same way. For example, parents and caregivers may be unintentionally excluded if activities happen after the workday. Community-building activities also need to offer options for both in-office and remote workers.

And if you’re not sure what employees want, just ask! Conduct a few focus groups or send out a quick pulse survey to gauge employee opinion on what’s important to them. Also, simply creating an event will not create community. All levels of leadership need to participate and be visible in the activities and events that you establish. Having a robust number of events with zero leadership involvement can do more harm than good, as employees will wonder if it is okay to participate in the event. They may wonder why leadership does not participate in the cultural community aspects of the organization, creating an unintentional divide amongst the employees.

If you are unsure where to begin, here are some ideas to get you started:

Volunteer together.

Pick a cause that’s close to your organization’s mission, a local charity, or even an employee’s passion project. Get employees excited about participating with lots of communication beforehand and a t-shirt to wear during the event. Can’t get together in person? There are many virtual volunteer opportunities to check out.

Institute a “5-minute catch-up” rule.

It’s tempting to launch right into a meeting agenda, but to create community, we need to devote a least a few minutes to honor the fact that we are humans first and employees second. Encourage employees to intentionally connect with others—ask people how they are or what they did over the weekend, talk about your pets, discuss hobbies, whatever energizes them!

Make sure the physical workspace offers places to connect.

Employee expectations about what workspaces should look like are changing. Microsoft predicts “organizations will require a mix of collaboration, meeting, and focus space, in addition to spaces that encourage informal social interactions.” People want to come to a place that creates the feeling of community they can’t get working from home. Otherwise, they’ll opt to stay remote. If in-person work is important to your company, it’s something to consider.

Use storytelling.

People are culturally and biologically predisposed to love stories. Storytelling at work can help people empathize with one another and feel connected, especially during times of change. During the height of the pandemic, we witnessed how powerful stories could be in bringing us together. So, whether you solicit employee testimonials or ask leaders to weave stories into their communication, don’t overlook the power of this tool to create community.

Support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

ERGs provide a safe place to connect and share with like-minded coworkers. ERGs work best when they have the autonomy to create and maintain their own groups without feeling too much oversight from leadership or HR. I’ve come across some popular community-building resource groups like networks for diversity and inclusion, women, working parents, interests in sustainability, advocacy, young professionals, book clubs, and more!

Leverage digital tools.

Slack channels or workplace social media interest groups can be a great way to stay connected to other employees and build community. For example, at WebMD Health Services, we recently set up chat channels for employees working from the same state to talk about local goings-on and plan a meetup if they wanted to.

We also rolled out a new social media tool for clients in WebMD ONE called Community, which connects employees based on their well-being interests and goals—like exercise, nutrition, sleep, and social connectedness. Once in a group, participants post questions, share stories, and provide encouragement.

Host fun after-hours events.

Whether it’s a happy hour, twilight hike, or potluck picnic in a park, scheduling events after work hours helps coworkers get to know one another more deeply. If your company also works weekends, consider scheduling some events on weekends, too, when those with caregiving responsibilities may have more flexibility.

Establish mentor or peer-coaching programs.

Mentorship has been associated with increased satisfaction at work and greater feelings of acceptance within the organization, and naturally creates a different type of bond between employees. Mentorship also provides much-needed support to underrepresented groups in leadership like women and people of color, thereby helping create a more diverse and inclusive community.

Pay attention to your onboarding experience.

Welcome new employees into the community with intentional activities designed to create connection. Schedule coffee chats or lunch with a different team member each day during their first week or send a personal note from a senior leader welcoming them to the organization. The goal is to make the new employee feel like they’ve joined a caring community.

Create rituals.

If you don’t already have them, it’s smart to create a few rituals that employees can look forward to. This could be anything from celebrating work anniversaries or birthdays to hosting healthy Taco Tuesdays, movie/TV show reviews Mondays, or First Friday pizza. At WebMD Health Services, we have biweekly virtual Water Cooler Chats where anyone can join to take a break, talk about non-work-related topics, and meet new people.

Provide regular recognition.

Praising people formally or informally gives them a sense of accomplishment, makes employees feel valued for their work, and is a great motivator. Both manager-to-direct-report and peer-to-peer recognition can positively impact a sense of community. There are many ways to recognize employees—from formal recognition platforms to simple handwritten notes. The important thing is to make it a regular part of the culture.

Celebrate organizational wins.

Whether it’s onboarding a new client or having an outstanding quarter, celebrate these accomplishments. It could be as simple as toasting a win with a morning cup of coffee or a more elaborate celebration with champagne or cake.

Build cross-connections.

Too often, we only really get to know the people in our direct department. But “weak ties” are also essential to nurture community. Some organizations set up random meetings between coworkers who don’t typically work together. At WebMD Health Services, we recently launched a peer coaching program, where people are assigned a partner from a different department and discuss their goals for professional growth.

Communicate often.

Organizations that maintain regular communication with employees tend to have stronger communities. Our experience with the pandemic is a good example—companies who regularly communicated and were transparent with employees built trust and loyalty versus those who kept employees in the dark. Leadership communication is vital. Leaders can create community by regularly sharing the organization’s mission and how employees’ work ties into it.

Sponsor an athletic team.

Sports aren’t for everyone, but company-sponsored teams are still a good way to create community as they encourage those cross-connections between employees of different departments. Those who aren’t playing can even come out to cheer the team on!

Host a workplace wellness challenge.

Workplace wellness challenges encourage people to stay active and rally the community around a common goal. Clients find that wellness challenges, like our Invitational Team Steps Challenge, strengthen corporate culture by motivating people to get outside, get social, and engage in a little healthy competition. Check out these other wellness challenge ideas for inspiration!

Involve the family.

We’ve had great success both with our clients and internally by involving kids and pets in our programming. We hold yoga classes, family cooking demonstrations, art and photography contests, cutest pet awards, and more. It’s a fun way to connect on a more personal level.

Start your journey to building a sense of community at work with WebMD Health Services

WebMD Health Services is on a mission to help companies truly care for their employees while also impacting business results. If you need help learning how to build a sense of community in your workplace, visit our website or contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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