December 7, 2020

The Power of Belonging: The How and Why of Building Community Across a Modern Remote Workforce


When the pandemic forced a sudden shift to remote work, many companies feared productivity would decline. Instead, more than 90 percent of employers now say productivity has stayed the same or even increased compared to before the pandemic.

While this lays aside the biggest concern most companies had about remote work, another problem is brewing, and it may be just as harmful as a drop in production would have been: the loss of shared culture, community, and belonging among employees.

Belonging is one of the most basic human needs, and it is critical for both human and business survival. Without it, studies show people suffer worse physical and mental health, while companies face up to 40 percent lower retention and five-times lower employee engagement. This is precisely why, prior to the pandemic, many organizations were considering or already moving remote workers back to a company office.

The Price We Pay for Remote Work: Fewer In-Person Interactions

With remote and hybrid work greatly expanded, many companies are struggling to maintain the shared cultures that once kept team members engaged and happy. A lack of face-to-face interaction is making employees feel lonely and isolated, a problem that gets more acute the larger the organization. Remote work can also lead to lower levels of trust between managers and direct reports and more overbearing management practices — hence the surge in worker surveillance solutions, which are (for the most part) a terrible idea.

While virtual happy hours and Zoom bingo nights can help employees stay in touch, there’s simply no substitute for the authentic interpersonal interaction that happens when people are physically in the same room. The majority of the information we convey during interpersonal interactions comes through nonverbal means like tone, facial expression, and body language. Unfortunately, these are all elements that don’t translate well digitally. Not to mention that Zoom fatigue is real, and not everyone is excited to be on a webcam for another hour after a long day at work.

Productivity Tools Don’t Cut It

Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are excellent for productivity because they are designed to get work done. They primarily function as ways to facilitate easy file sharing, one-click video calling, and quick instant messages between colleagues. As a result, we identify these tools with getting work done; notifications from Slack and Teams are perceived to be notifications about work.

That is exactly why it can be frustrating to check a notification only to find a non-urgent photo from a colleague. The photo itself isn’t bad; it’s just in the wrong place, one that isn’t designed for building employee relationships.

Think about the ways we built work relationships before the pandemic. What makes the water cooler or break room so special is its separation, both physically and mentally, from work. This separation enables us to hold the kinds of informal conversations about non-work topics that help us discover commonalities that transcend role, language, gender, and other differences. These conversations are the foundation of trust upon which strong cultures and employee relationships are built.

Human Connection Is More Important Than Ever

At a time when we’re all feeling isolated, and as companies resume hiring, building camaraderie among coworkers is crucial for both fueling innovation and attracting and retaining talent. With the cost of hiring a replacement amounting to roughly one-third of the departing employee’s annual salary, that’s an expense no company wants to endure if it doesn’t have to.

Yet onboarding is extremely difficult in the remote work world. Virtual interactions aren’t as effective when it comes to helping new hires feel like they belong. The ways in which we typically learn cultural norms, interact with others, and access informal information — those water-cooler moments — are not often feasible when working remotely. Lacking those natural encounters with their colleagues, new employees may feel reluctant to participate. They may feel left out, which can lead to a spiral of disengagement and discontent.

Remote work is here to stay. That means we have to change our approach to cultivating high-performing cultures and workplace relationships.

New Tools for the Remote Era

If we want employees to build meaningful coworker relationships now, we need to provide them with a digital space to do so — a space apart from the ones they use to get work done. Companies must create digital homes for the casual and spontaneous interactions we used to routinely have at the office.

In the same way that the water cooler and break room offered different experiences from the rest of the office, the digital home for casual interaction must also offer a tailored user experience. The experiences and features that make productivity tools great for getting work done are exactly why they are ill-equipped for building workplace relationships. We know from using Instagram and Facebook in our personal lives that forming relationships is more about sharing photos and videos than rapid-fire texting. We know that a mobile-first experience is more conducive to relationship-building than a desktop-centric one, and we know we value the ability to share high-quality content with larger groups, not just chat in smaller ones.

Cultivating belonging and trust is key for building high-performing teams. Now, more than over, organizations need tools that help nurture those vital human connections. By offering employees a digital space designed specifically for workplace relationships, organizations can start to overcome the culture challenges associated with remote and hybrid work.

Mark Sawyier is CEO at Bonfyre.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Mark Sawyier is the CEO and cofounder of Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform designed to build human connections. Mark founded his first company, an off-campus apartment website, in 2004 as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis; he has been leading companies ever since. A passionate and experienced entrepreneur, Mark now brings his curiosity, creativity, and leadership expertise to companies ranging from Fortune 500s to early-stage startups. Mark believes people are the most valuable factor of any successful company, and maintaining a workplace culture that benefits the employees has become his passion.