With the furlough scheme coming to an end today (30 September), employees returning to work may be feeling anxious and disconnected from the workplace. Anne-Marie Finch considers how fostering a sense of belonging might help with the transition.

As furlough ends, two million UK employees could return to work. For some returners this will be the first time they’ve worked for over a year, and many will feel anxious and nervous due to a feeling of disconnect between themselves and their places of work.

Already one in three workers have said the return to the office is negatively impacting their mental health, according to McKinsey & Company. This anxiety will be particularly prevalent for many who are starting a new role, and those with teams that have been completely restructured since they last were at the organisation. This group will be trying to regain their footing in potentially unfamiliar industries.

This stress and anxiety can be managed by companies placing an emphasis on “belongingness”, which is the intrinsic desire to belong to a place, person, organisation. By prioritising this concept, organisations can implement a smooth transition for their employees and in time create an open and accepting environment that allows employees to be their true selves.

Business leaders must take the lessons learned over these past months and embrace the fact that their employees all have different needs and each one should be considered – whether someone is an introvert, extrovert or something in between. And in order to do that successfully, belongingness must be at the core of the working environment.

Belongingness versus fitting in

Often belongingness can be mistaken for “fitting in”, even though it is the complete opposite. Fitting in is an individual changing themselves to fit the expectations of others, but belongingness is about accepting an individual as they are.

Instead of forcing an individual to change, the organisation shapes its culture to reflect and encourage all unique attributes of its employees. This has an incredibly powerful effect on an individual and can directly affect their feelings, attitude and work. By cultivating belongingness, an organisation can set the scene for employee happiness and in turn, higher productivity – an important factor considering many organisations will be working at full capacity for the first time since furlough began.

A sense of belonging allows employees to feel part of their organisation because a greater emphasis is put on their feelings, a sense of security and having their voices heard. This is an incredibly important factor when considering a post-furlough world, especially because many people might feel they have lost their professional identity, and ensuring that their voices are heard can help build confidence. It also decreases anxiety as employees are made to feel valued and not simply as if they’re a cog in a wheel. It is far too common that businesses focus more on outcomes and success measurement tools and lose track of the individuals who power the organisation. This may be particularly true for companies that have simply focused on survival and recovery from the pandemic.

How can HR teams foster belongingness? 

As belongingness is the emotional desire to be accepted, HR could consider implementing group activities, such as “heartbeat sessions”. A small group can participate in these sessions and discuss topics such as a successful learning moment of the week and what they have achieved together as a team. In relation to furlough, questions can be asked such as, “what has been tough since returning to work?”.

A session introducing staff to the concept of belongingness could help employees understand how being part of the company unit can have a positive impact. With many people returning to the office for the first time, this could be a great way to ensure that they feel as welcome and valued as their counterparts who may not have been placed on furlough. A team- or company-wide meeting can help ensure all employees are on the same page.

Ultimately, organisations need to help their employees settle back into life post-furlough. For many people the past year and a half drastically disrupted their lives, but the return to work provides them with stability. Organisations have a duty of care to ensure that transitions are as seamless as possible to help reduce nervousness.