Today, the UK’s furlough scheme comes to an end for many after 18 months. The most recent data shows 1.6 million people were still on furlough at the end of July, which has dropped from nine million in May 2020. This scheme saved millions from redundancy but as it draws to a close, newly-returning workers are facing a new type of anxiety – returning to the office after an extended time away from colleagues and the working environment.

Not only might there be health-related concerns but employees who are re-joining their previous companies might feel a disconnect due to time away. This could be a lack of familiar faces, new faces appearing or business matters changing significantly during the furlough scheme. For employees who lost jobs and those who are starting new roles, a similar disconnect will no doubt be felt. One in three workers have reported the return to work is negatively affecting their mental health, according to a McKinsey survey.

I believe belongingness is key for companies to help employees feel comfortable returning to work. Belongingness doesn’t just refer to the feeling of ‘fitting in’, in fact, it’s a very different concept. It ensures all unique voices across a business are contributing to overall growth by empowering them to speak up and feel supported by colleagues when they do so. Rather than the individual adapting to the organisation, the organisation needs to encourage employees to be their true selves so they can do their best work. 

Embracing employee’s individual wants and needs is how organisations will truly be successful during the next era of work. Going back to the office does not come with a one size fits all solution, but instead, it should be crafted considering employee’s unique needs – whether they’re an introvert, extrovert or something in between. In order to successfully do this organizations must prioritize creating a culture of belonging by dedicating time and resources to the concept. Here are my suggestions for implementing belongingness in the workplace. 

From Chief People Officer to Chief Belongingness Officer 

In the spirit of meaningful signaling, introducing a role such as ‘Chief Belongingness Officer’ (CBO) can help to create a foundation for an organisation committed to the concept. The CBO can act as the driving force for creating programs and activities centred around belongingness while also ensuring that employees are fully on board with the mission to make the workplace more inclusive and accepting. 

Fostering Belongingness makes sure all voices are heard 

No one wants to feel like a cog in a wheel, churning out results without feeling as if you’re part of something bigger. Belongingness allows organisations to put greater emphasis on employees’ thoughts and feelings, giving them a better sense of security and the confidence that their voices are heard. This is particularly important as people return to work after being on furlough as employees’ professional identities may have been lost. With a company culture committed to belongingness, colleagues can help build confidence again, by ensuring everyone is listened to and valued – naturally decreasing anxiety. 

It’s not just about measurement tools and outcomes 

For businesses who have had a tough time during the pandemic, it’s understandable that leaders tend to focus on business outcomes and success via measurement tools, rather than the individuals that drive the organisation forward. But businesses that focus on a sense of belonging through programs and initiatives are more likely to have a successful recovery. It will enable employees to work more comfortably, collaborate more effectively and ultimately produce better results for the company. 

Invest in strong onboarding programs 

Companies welcoming new recruits who have been on furlough should focus on the onboarding process to set employees up for success. The concept of belongingness needs to be introduced from the get-go, that way employees feel part of something from day one. The CBO should spend time with each new joiner to introduce the concept of belongingness and how exactly it fits into their company culture. By dedicating time to sessions like these employees will feel welcomed and valued from the beginning. 

Programs to reduce stress and anxiety 

The CBO can work alongside HR teams to implement programs focused on group activities. For example, Heartbeat sessions are a great way to reflect as a team and provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. Small groups can get together to discuss topics like learning moments, achievements and share knowledge in a safe environment. These sessions should be an opportunity for people to discuss feelings of anxiety or stress in relation to the furlough ending, encouraging people to speak up and show support for one another. This also fosters friendship, allowing employees to make new connections which will make returning to work more enjoyable. 

All-hands meetings ensure everyone is on the same page 

As furlough ends, organising an all-hands meeting to welcome new members or welcome back furloughed employees can help reduce return-to-work anxiety. For many, this will be the first time they’ve returned to an office in a long time, so it’s important to make them feel as welcome as possible. Organisations can use this meeting to remind employees of the importance of belongingness, allow leaders to give company updates in a transparent environment and give employees the chance to address the entire organisation at once. 

Placing belongingness at the centre of the organisation

It’s no secret the pandemic has been truly disruptive for individuals and businesses alike. But with furlough ending, there’s an opportunity for returning employees to settle back into working life with the support of their colleagues. Organisations have a duty to ensure this transition is as smooth as possible and a culture of belongingness is key to reducing anxiety and stress.