It’s no secret that with Australian unemployment rates at record lows, talent retention is a top priority for employers. At the same time, ADP Research Institute’s Global Workplace Study 2022 found that only 16 per cent of Australian employees were fully engaged at work. While organisations can’t control the wider economic conditions, they can focus on creating workplaces where their people are more likely to stay. One way of doing that is by increasing employees’ sense of belonging at work. And a successful mentoring program can help foster this sense of connection and community – especially in a hybrid working environment.


Why belonging at work is so crucial

Although Abraham Maslow put ‘the need to belong’ midway up his famous hierarchy of needs, research over the last few decades suggests that belonging should be located closer to the base of the pyramid, as a need as vital as food and shelter. In the context of employment, psychological research has consistently shown that when people feel they belong to a team or organisation, they tend to perform better and experience higher levels of engagement and wellbeing.

A feeling of belonging, then, is key to staff engagement and retention: one study of almost 4,000 workers in the US found that a high sense of belonging was linked to a 56 per cent increase in job performance, a 50 per cent decrease in turnover risk, and a 75 per cent reduction in sick days. Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167 per cent increase in their willingness to recommend their company to others as a good place to work.

 In contrast, a lack of belonging increases the risk of employees’ alienation, burnout and underperformance. Research also shows that feeling excluded causes people to put less effort into their team. Feeling excluded is damaging because it actually hurts: the social pain of rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain. So companies that neglect their people’s need to feel included are at a huge competitive disadvantage.

 An organisation’s ability, then, to create a culture of connection and belonging is a powerful (and often, underutilised) tool which they can use to engage and retain staff. But in a hybrid working environment, where employees work remotely for significant portions of their week, creating such a culture can be particularly challenging. As the authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article write, “People are longing for the connective tissue and social glue we once took for granted.” While there’s no simple answer, a robust mentoring program can certainly help ease the disconnection of working remotely.


How mentoring builds connection and belonging

 Experts state that we belong at work when we are:

  1. Seen for our unique contributions.
  2. Connected to our coworkers.
  3. Supported in our daily work and career development.
  4. Proud of our organisation’s values and purpose.

A successful mentoring program fosters all these four elements of belonging. For example, online mentoring platform MentorKey allows organisations to roll out company-wide mentoring programs, with a matching algorithm which pairs mentees and mentors across locations, backgrounds and job levels. Using MentorKey:

  1. Mentees have regular discussions with mentors about their career, including their strengths, achievements to date, goals ahead and ideas for change, allowing mentees to be seen for their unique contributions and the value they bring to their organisation.
  2. Coworkers connect via a mentoring relationship. Indeed, while many people are good at connecting with their immediate team, there are often silos between different teams and business lines within a company. Mentoring is a great way to build connections between employees in different business lines. In fact, we strongly recommend that mentoring partners work in separate business lines.
  3. Mentors support mentees’ career development through structured conversations about the mentee’s goals. Preparing for mentoring meetings is made easy by the guidance provided to mentees and mentors, which is built into MentorKey’s online platform. And mentors’ – with deep knowledge of their organisation, significant expertise and established networks – can help mentees gain real career development opportunities; from promotions, to being assigned a desired project.
  4. Employees from different business lines are brought together, giving mentees and mentors a greater understanding of the each other’s day-to-day role, the importance of their contributions, and their worth to the broader business. Investing in mentoring also validates an organisation’s commitment to its people, helping instil employees’ pride in the organisation’s value and purpose.


Where to from here?

In his recently published book ‘Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides’, Stanford University professor Geoffrey Cohen writes that we generally “overestimate how much of a team or an organisation’s performance… depends on picking the right people, rather than creating the right conditions for them to thrive.” And it’s clear that people thrive when they feel they belong.

A successful mentoring program helps create a culture of belonging by setting employees up to share experiences and connect deeply; by allowing mentees to feel seen by more experienced colleagues; and by giving mentees and mentors the opportunity to showcase their contributions. With mentoring, you can help keep your people by giving them the sense of belonging they crave.