Several weeks ago, my wife told me that I needed to find some time out of the house. Like so many of us, I’d been working from home for months. I’d adjusted to the rhythms of remote work and was very productive and engaged.

But I’d been driving my wife crazy.

Knowing it’s a losing proposition to question her wisdom, I took my wife’s advice and decided to head into the office one day a week to start. My first day back, only a few other people were there. I’m not sure how I thought I’d feel, but I was surprised to find that I felt more isolated than I ever did working at home. The office wasn’t the same, and I’m not sure that it ever will be.

Everyone wants to belong

This experience got me thinking about what it means to feel a sense of belonging at work. It’s something we all want and deserve. It’s also a very important topic that takes on a different meaning than it did in 2019 before so much changed about how (and where) we work.

Before the crisis, I thought of belonging at work in connection to the physical office—the spaces we occupy, the rituals we share, the face-to-face collaboration, the coffee breaks and conversations, and the long hours solving client challenges. I suppose that’s why I expected to feel immediately connected once I was “going to work” again.

What I’ve realized since this first day back is that my sense of belonging isn’t—and can’t be—tied to the walls of our Minneapolis office. Belonging isn’t just about being together in the same physical space. It’s much bigger than that.

Broadening what it means to belong

Accenture recently released a report that’s broadened my understanding of what makes employees feel that they belong. It comes from having influence over decisions, being respected, being comfortable speaking up, and receiving sponsorship from leaders who can help them advance their careers. What’s more, belonging thrives in cultures that celebrate diversity and inclusion.

This research reveals that organizations that create an environment where people feel seen, heard and valued across day-to-day experiences get performance advantages from unlocking human potential. It pinpoints “everyday experience” elements that organizations should get right to support employee belonging. The most important are empowerment, communication, diversity and customer centricity. 

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A vital issue to track—and tackle

While this report is geared to the private sector, it’s extremely relevant for public service and higher education leaders. There’s uncertainty about what the future of work will look like, but leaders don’t have the luxury of waiting until the path forward is clear to tackle this issue. After all, the labor market is tighter than ever. What’s more, public organizations are competing for talent with private sector employers that are taking action to create more equitable working environments.

What does this mean for current and future public sector leaders?

Regardless of whether everyone comes back to the office, stays home or pivots to a hybrid model, leaders need to key into the tangible and intangible elements that help people feel like they belong. This calls for adaptive, human-centric management that respects the personal side of “getting down to business.”

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Because at home, at work—wherever we are—we are all human. And we all want to belong.

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At home, at work, we’re all human

I don’t profess to have all the answers to “how” to do this. Even if I did, it would be impossible to articulate them all in this short blog. But here’s what I can say now.

Any organization that wants to improve the spirit of belonging must ground everything in the human element. Everything else comes from that foundation. As friends, we want to hang out with people we like and respect. As customers, we want to do business with people we like and respect. As employees, we want to work with people we like and respect—and who like and respect us.

When we feel we belong in these ways, we aren’t just more satisfied at work, we’re more productive. This connects with my own sense of belonging in my role at Accenture. It’s been my experiences that have grounded my sense of belonging—and all the people who I’ve shared these experiences with over the years.

I believe that the leaders who crack the code on belonging will stand out because they’ll have a skill that other leaders aspire to develop in our new world of work. Because at home, at work—wherever we are—we’re all human. And we all want to belong.

Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.


This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisors. This document refers to marks owned by third parties.  All such third-party marks are the property of their respective owners.  No sponsorship, endorsement or approval of this content by the owners of such marks is intended, expressed or implied.

Ryan R. Gaetz

Managing Director – Consulting, Accenture Workday Education & Government​ Lead

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