The Big Idea: Treat employees like people

“One of the biggest business liabilities is isolation.” 

Kim Samuel is the founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness in Montreal. She is also the author of On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation.

There’s much to love about remote work. You can accomplish a lot from the comfort of your own kitchen table, zip out for appointments as needed and be available to care for small children. The commute is definitely shorter. And yet, as freeing as all that flexibility may be, it comes at a price. There’s a reason these last couple of years have given rise to worker movements like “the Great Resignation.” In the absence of water coolers, face-to-face meetings and semi-regular pizza lunches, employers are now forced to work harder to maintain a sense of cultural cohesion. These days, one of the biggest business liabilities is isolation. 

We already know that loneliness is associated with a whole host of health problems—sleep issues, heart disease, depression, even premature death. It’s also toxic for workplaces. A 2021 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company examined what’s behind the record-high rates of quitting worldwide. When researchers asked managers why they thought their workers had left their jobs, respondents pointed to issues like low pay and a lack of work-life balance. But surprisingly, more than half of employees said it was because they didn’t feel a sense of community at work. Whether or not teams stay hybrid, belonging has to become an orienting principle, not just a nice-to-have—from big boardrooms to factory floors. In 2023 and beyond, employees need to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the job.

I realize that the word “belonging,” a concept I’ve based my entire work life around, might seem to some like soft stuff. I also know that businesspeople like metrics, so here are a few: according to a Gallup poll from last September, employees who feel connected to their workplace are almost four times more engaged, almost 70 per cent less likely to report burnout and, crucially, 55 per cent less likely to be on the hunt for a new job. 

The idea that work must be a source of interpersonal fulfillment—rather than just a source of a paycheque—is a seismic shift. More and more, managers will have to build bonds by controlling less and listening more. They’ll have to move away from prescriptive, top-down policies and toward those “softer” interpersonal practices, like asking connection-building questions, giving positive feedback and putting away their phones during one-on-ones. They’ll need to ask, and genuinely care, about workers’ needs and values—right from the hiring stage. Does a prospective employee want to work at a company that cares about its carbon footprint? Do they need more flexible hours to deal with child- or elder-care responsibilities? Do they feel passionate about attending regular holiday parties? How do they define meaningful work? In the business world, there’s a lot of talk about “tone from the top,” but in truly welcoming workplaces, culture comes from the middle. 

There are plenty of other practical policy changes that can make employees feel more at home at work. I may be alone in this, but I think onboarding should involve much more than a week of legal box-checking and form-filling. At the moment, businesses treat the process more like an exercise in compliance than a meet-and-greet with new team members. Companies could pair each new worker with a designated mentor, one who acts as a reliable resource and sounding board long after the health-and-safety slideshows are over. With a friendly first point of contact, employees might feel like their voice matters from the beginning.

“Belonging” only began to gather steam as a business buzzword in the last few years—and it really took off with COVID. Its spiritual predecessor was diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. In the U.S. alone, $8 billion is funnelled into DEI initiatives every year. Togetherness is such a key corporate priority nowadays that big-name institutions like Harvard University, Nordstrom and DoorDash have installed executives with titles like “vice-president of global culture, belonging and people growth.” That said, just because a company throws words like “inclusion” around doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inclusive. Many times, their initiatives are metric-focused: they count how many LGBTQ people were promoted in the last year, the ratio of men to women in the C-suite and, recently, how many Ukrainian refugees they’ve hired. The distinction between DEI and pure marketing has never been more important. Ernst & Young recently surveyed 5,000 workers around the world and found that roughly half of respondents felt lonelier at work now than they did before the pandemic. It’s a good time to re-examine what those inclusion programs actually achieve. 

To me, what matters is tracking how an individual feels when they get up and go to work—gender, race and sexual orientation aside. And to do that, we need to go deeper than merely looking at org charts; we need to use a bit of imagination. Just as magazines like this one track, say, Canada’s best universities, I’d love to see a new metric developed by an independent body that specifically assesses companies’ belonging scores. The metrics would be qualitative: is the office accessible? How much sway do workers have in overall decision-making? Do they feel supported? 

Another, more concrete way for workers to exercise their right to belong is to give them a tangible investment in their companies. I’ve found that some of the most engaged employees are part of co-operative, worker-owned businesses that offer share-ownership plans—a model commonly known as economic democracy. These workers don’t just have a token seat at the table; they have a stake in how their company is run.

I often cite the example of Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a network of worker-owned businesses, including laundry services and renewable energy firms, many of which hire individuals who have previously faced significant hurdles to employment, like criminal records. At Evergreen, employees are board members and primary stakeholders. In Canada, NorthernNations Cooperative has brought disparate Indigenous-owned businesses under one shared entity to increase their branding and purchasing power. Both enterprises owe their success to their workers’ collective values. Is that kind of co-operation consistent with the free-enterprise system? You bet it is.

Don’t get me wrong: what I’m saying isn’t purely altruistic. Belonging is good for business, and there will always be a need for personal boundaries at work. Offices (online or elsewhere) may never reach the level of intimacy available at social gathering places like churches and sports clubs. But there’s no denying how important a sense of community is to employee satisfaction and retention, especially now. With a record number of job vacancies in Canada, no one could fault workers for seeking out positions that make full use of their individual gifts—and companies who value them, too. Times have changed, but I know what it’s like to be an intern with your boss putting their name on your work. I know what it’s like to feel invisible. All these lonely workers seem to be saying, “I want to know that my time and my ideas matter. And that it matters that I am here and not someone else.”

This article appears in print in the January 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.

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