The world of work has changed tremendously in recent years and shows no signs of stopping. People’s notions of what they need and want from their jobs, as well as what trade-offs they’re willing to make, have taken a turn. Workers are emerging from the pandemic with new demands reverberating around the world — and they want to see this reflected in their companies’ cultures. Depending on their companies’ business models, employers have implemented measures like flexible schedules, remote work, enhanced work-life balance and other perks and benefits that matter to their workforce. But when we take a closer look at employees’ experiences with and beliefs about company culture, what matters most to workers and candidates and why? 

To better understand this, Indeed conducted a nine-month study of company culture in the U.S. in 2021 with research firm SKIM, merging Indeed’s unparalleled knowledge of workers and hiring with SKIM’s expertise in experimental research methods. By gathering data from more than 2,200 workers on their conscious and unconscious beliefs about company culture, we uncovered what matters most (and least) to them. We then conducted an additional survey of 2,020 U.S. workers in late 2021 to gain insights into how COVID-19 has impacted their views of company culture.

While workers say that more commonly cited aspects of a good company culture, like a fun office, good schedule and positive leadership style, are the biggest factors in shaping that culture, their unconscious beliefs tell a deeper story. In fact, we found that belonging is by far the biggest driver of workers’ satisfaction with culture.

Why belonging at work matters

In Indeed’s research on company culture, belonging is defined as the extent to which employees feel supported and empowered by their employers to be themselves at work. 

“Belonging is a feeling of community with people and environments that makes us feel connected,” explains LaFawn Davis, Senior Vice President of Environmental, Social and Governance at Indeed.

Humans are social creatures, and, in turn, our work plays a central role in this aspect of our lives. From collaborating with coworkers to chatting with clients, presenting in meetings or coming together to celebrate holidays and milestones, our work brings us together. This social component of work, we find, matters more than people realize — and belonging to something bigger than oneself doesn’t just feel good, it meets a fundamental need. 

Psychological safety is one key ingredient for belonging. When employees have psychological safety at work, they know they are recognized as whole people, not just human capital. According to Davis, psychological safety is a crucial ingredient for innovation: “It means [workers] don’t have fear to push against the status quo to ask questions, learn, grow and pitch ideas.”

In turn, belonging is more than liking coworkers or even having friends at the office — it means people can be themselves and know their employers and peers will support them. 

But belonging does more than make people feel safe and secure; it also gives a sense of direction. Scott Bonneau, Vice President of Global Talent Attraction at Indeed, has seen this firsthand throughout his career. To nurture productivity and happiness on teams, he stresses the need for “that basic principle of creating clarity about how people relate to their peers and to their work, and then how that work relates to the things they are trying to accomplish as a team.”

What does this mean for employers? When people understand how they belong, they can better see how their work fits into larger goals. It’s no surprise, then, that Indeed’s culture research shows strong correlations among workers’ sense of belonging, professional identity and purpose. 

Like our research on company culture, Indeed’s groundbreaking research on work happiness also highlights the importance of belonging, which has proven to be a powerful driver of employee happiness. 

Workplace well-being expert and Oxford professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve describes belonging as “the social ties and social capital you have in the workplace,” noting that it grew even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When belonging falters, workers look elsewhere

In Indeed’s follow-up survey on culture during the pandemic, we found that only 31% of employees felt COVID-19 had not impacted their sense of belonging at work, while 25% felt they belonged less than before. Twenty-seven percent were looking for a new job specifically because they wanted a greater sense of belonging at work. These findings suggest a direct line between workers' sense of belonging and retention and show that nurturing belonging isn’t just good for workers — it’s good for business. 

“We are seeing workers thinking much more about things like their work-life balance and their happiness at work as they consider job opportunities,” explains Bonneau.

Like any relationship, bonds among employers and teams are always growing and changing, and they require focus and investment to flourish. A good fit is important, but in the long term, employers need to nurture relationships, support psychological safety and encourage real collaborations — all of which are harder to do amid a crisis. While many employers strive to create a sense of belonging at work, we found that 62% of employees believed their employers should do more.

Workers report that the top three factors that impact belonging are feeling valued as a whole person (53%), being recognized for their work (49%) and working collaboratively with team members (45%). Employers can use these insights to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, taking the time to celebrate employee achievements is a simple way to boost belonging that can start now. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be an elaborate party — a supportive Slack message or shout-out from the boss can go a long way toward building morale and nurturing a strong workplace culture.  

In addition to showing current employees that they belong, a culture of belonging can make a company stand out to prospective hires. It’s no accident that Glassdoor’s 100 Best Places to Work in 2022 list includes NVIDIA, Hubspot, Box and other tech companies, which differentiated themselves during COVID-19 by offering employees flexibility and work-life balance. By supporting workers during a time of crisis, these companies showed the positive outcomes of investing in belonging.

When companies prioritize belonging, everyone benefits

A sense of belonging doesn’t just feel nice; it’s central to a healthy, vibrant culture.  

Belonging is a powerful force that helps workers see how they fit into the company’s goals and vision on every level, whether as individuals, members of a team or one of hundreds or thousands of employees. 

As employers seek new and better ways to hire and retain workers in one of the tightest labor markets in modern history, many talent leaders are realizing that their cultures can make or break their talent acquisition and retention efforts — and a shared sense of belonging can make or break their cultures. 

When belonging is strong, culture flourishes — and so do employees.