Where Do I Belong?

May 1, 2017 | Sara Stowe | HCI
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At the 10-year mark in agency recruiting, I made the move to corporate recruiting, leveling up with talent acquisition strategy. As I got deeper into talent acquisition, I became particularly passionate about workplace culture.

At the next 10-year mark in corporate recruiting, I was ready to take a big step—consulting. I determined my readiness to take that step with great care and consideration. Over the course of 20 years, I’d interviewed many consultants who were looking to return to full-time employment, and heard the myriad of reasons and common themes why they were leaving consulting.

The right opportunity came four months after drafting my business plan, and so I confidently made a leap. The client already knew me, was well-funded and innovative, and equipped with leadership that genuinely cared about culture. It was ideal. I secured another client. I had opportunity ahead of me doing the work I love.

Fast-forward five months into the engagements, and I was feeling something I’ve never experienced before – a compromised emotional wellbeing. I was feeling low, sad, a general malaise…yet, living the dream?

I was able to draw this conclusion when I visited one of my clients, who generously made a point of arranging happy hours whenever I was in town just to include me. One of those weeks, I also went on an excursion with my husband’s work team and their plus ones. Lovely experiences, but in both instances I felt apart. I was included, but I didn’t belong. That’s what was affecting me: I didn’t belong.

Abraham Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs in 1943, which brilliantly gave us the imagery of the pyramid of needs that must be met before we can achieve our highest state of being: self-actualization.

Only after our ability to breathe, access food, water, safety and security, is our need to be loved and to belong. Feeling that we belong is necessary before we can achieve a sense of self-esteem, confidence, and respect of and by others. While I “belong” to a lot of aspects of my life—my family, marriage, friendships, the causes I care about; my profession has been a huge part of my identity. To not feel any sense of belonging in that dimension left me lonely. And, that loneliness affected my happiness.

I am fortunate to have timed this awareness when my new employer was looking for someone just like me. I am once again happy with a team again, doing the work I love in an ideal situation. However, as someone who is on the front lines with job seekers, candidates and employees, when I consider the prediction that by 2020, an upwards of 50 percent of the workforce will be some sort of contingent labor (freelance, contract, consultant, temp), could half of our workforce potentially suffer from some degree of unexpected loneliness, sadness, or even depression? How will that impact their work, productivity, and self-esteem? How will it impact the people they work with?

Many of these contingent workers won’t be ready to take the leap. Many will be piecing work together until they can find a fulltime opportunity. If they’re feeling lonely, it could compound frustration in what typically is the demoralizing process of getting a job. Co-working spaces recognize the importance of place as an aspect of belonging. We’ll see those spaces grapple with culture fit with independent contractors, freelancers and early stage startups. We see independents collaborate on projects, and then disband at the end of the engagement. More professional networking and meetups are happening that build a sense of community. It is a multi-faceted solution to create that sense of belonging when you don’t belong as an employee.

As HR professionals, what responsibility do we share to prepare the emerging workforce for finding ways to satisfy its need to belong? What responsibility does a company have to their contingent workforce’s emotional wellbeing (particularly in a climate that demands a clear delineation between the FTE and contract worker)?

Or will we see greater engagement in work from people who have been contingent workers, grateful that they have perspective of belonging once they convert to FTE? I expect that different people will feel the lack of belonging to different degrees, depending on how used to working alone they may be, and it may not be an entirely negative outcome. I don’t have all the answers, but it’s something I think about now.