Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is a Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at Virginia Union University (VUU). Author of 12 books and over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and reports, Strayhorn is one of the nation’s most prolific scholars with a leading voice on racial equity, human success, and a sense of belonging in education and employment. He is President/CEO of Do-Good Work Consulting Group, a Member of the Children’s Defense Fund’s (CDF) Freedom Schools Research Advisory Committee, and a Diversity Scholar-in-Residence at Harrisburg Area Community College. Professor Strayhorn serves on several non-profit boards including Minds Beyond Measure and MCT Educational Foundation.
Workplace belonging is an essential component in creating a positive and productive work environment, especially in the field of higher education where work life tends to be student-centered, team-oriented, and results-driven, requiring employees to work long hours, wear multiple hats, and go above the call of duty. Workplace belonging refers to the feelings of connectedness and inclusivity that employees have towards their work, workplace, and colleagues. It is essential for college faculty and staff to feel a strong sense of belonging in order to build a positive work culture marked by deep employee engagement, shared governance, collegiality, and high morale.
Because it fosters an atmosphere that is supportive of teamwork, mutual sharing, and collaboration, workplace belonging is critical for faculty and staff in higher education institutions, regardless of campus location, size, or type. Know it or not, workplace belonging makes it possible for everyone to work together in a more collaborative, efficient, and productive manner, regardless of rank, tenure, title, or station within traditional campus hierarchies. It encourages employees to bring their own distinctive perspectives, unique experiences, cultural voices, and creative ideas to the table, so to speak. And that table is truly set (or reset) for them, not just those with the most money, power, titles, or direct reports.
Higher education faculty and staff who feel like they belong and matter at work tend to have more positive outcomes in the long run. Research has shown that a strong sense of workplace belonging can have numerous positive gains for higher education personnel. It can lead to increased job satisfaction and work-related happiness, which can result in higher productivity and lower burnout. It can also foster deeper institutional commitment, leading to less turnover, more stability, and greater creativity and innovation. Specifically, I’ve found that workplace belonging is positively correlated with job satisfaction for part-time adjunct faculty at 2-year community colleges, year-to-year retention for administrative support staff at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and reduction in “sick leave days” at 4-year research universities, just to name a few. Figure 1 presents a graphical summary of such results.
Leaders in higher education can take several steps—that is, deliberate actions—to boost workplace belonging for all of their employees. This was the focus of several recent keynote lectures and presentations at professional associations and campuses across the nation, including without limitation: Virginia Commonwealth University, William & Mary, and the Virginia Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (VADOHE). In each of these invited public talks and discussions, I addressed key points about workplace belonging, how it’s different from related concepts (e.g., equity, diversity), and practical steps campus leaders can take to create conditions where every employee feels like they matter and belong at work. Here are a few highlights that map onto the model shown below (see Figure 2):
- Sense of belonging is a basic human need and people yearn to feel like they belong at home, school, and work;
- Work is an important aspect of life but it’s not the only part of people’s lives. People are looking for employers who understand this fact and demonstrate that understanding in the workplace, especially in a post-pandemic “new normal” where everyone’s keenly aware that time is precious and tomorrow’s not promised;
- Workplace belonging produces measurable, positive, and significant gains and empowers employees for “big wins” but it doesn’t always require BIG steps, major leaps, or mind-blowing financial investments—employers can produce macro-gains through micro-actions that boost workplace belonging.
To facilitate workplace belonging in higher education, human resource talent management (HRTM) leaders can make concerted efforts to advocate for diversity in the workplace and ensure that hiring practices are inclusive. In addition, campus leaders can help to cultivate a welcoming culture by providing high-quality on-boarding and orientation for all new hires, organizing regularly-scheduled activities geared toward team building, encouraging open and honest communication, inviting input from staff, and actively involving employees in the process of making important decisions. Team leaders—including cabinet members, deans, department heads, and directors—should make it a priority to cultivate strong personal connections with their employees, create opportunities for mentoring, and provide consistent growth-minded feedback and career coaching. Other promising practices that seem to boost workplace belonging include:
- Using current or new reward structures to celebrate the contributions, talents, and skills of staff and/or teams, which signals to employees that their work matters and contributions are valued.
- Investing in staff development opportunities ranging from in-house workshops to online webinars, microcredentials, and conference attendance/participation, which signals to employees that employers care about them and their career success, addressing findings from a recent survey that found 74% of employees identified “lack of professional development” as a barrier to reaching their full potential and 94% of them said they would stay longer at their place of employment if the company invested in staff development;
- Offering flexibility in terms of work, whether one works full-time, part-time, or contractually. Options vary but include remote work, flex time, educational- and/or parental leave, education benefits, and 4-day work weeks.
Building a culture of belonging in higher education calls for continuous commitment and hard work, but the benefits of such an environment far outweigh the cost. When institutions commit to fostering a sense of belonging for staff, they satisfy employees’ needs and raise productivity, which, in turn, contributes to the overall success of the organization. It’s literally a “win-win” situation for all.