How to create a sense of belonging at work

Holly Branson smiling in a black dress at the Virgin Voyages uniform launch party in London
Image by Molly Choma
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 3 March 2020

"I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself." - Maya Angelou

I had such a wonderful day with Virgin Media, touring their new headquarters and meeting the teams in Reading. I am passionate about our People and determined that each and every person can be 100 per cent per cent themselves at work, so it was wonderful to join Virgin Media's panel on creating a sense of belonging at work.

Holly Branson on Virgin Media's panel discussion about creating a sense of belonging at work
Image by Kami White

Belonging is so critical to our sense of self-worth and purpose. As work forms such a large part of our lives and our purpose, it’s important for workplaces to break down barriers that might stop people bringing their true selves to work. You get a sense of the belonging culture at Virgin Media the moment you step inside their office.

The company is taking great strides to create an inclusive workplace that nurtures the social and emotional needs of their people. As part of their journey to become 100 per cent inclusive, 100 per cent of the time – Virgin Media are giving their people a platform through a series of 'Belonging Panels' series' where their employees share the challenges and experiences they have faced. These panels foster an atmosphere of trust and support to will encourage others, who may be quietly suffering, to open up and reaach out for support.

I’ve never witnessed a work event quite like it. As 150 people gathered together to support each other in an open office environment - no judgement, only acceptance.

The panel I joined was made up of an incredible group of people from within the Virgin family who each had a fascinating story to tell. Ruth, from the People Team at Virgin Media, has a nine-year-old child with autism and is campaigning to break down barriers around neurodiversity. She spoke keenly about the importance of community and sharing our personal stories after she met two other parents with autistic children at a Virgin Media inclusion event in 2019.

Lucy Tardrew, a Virgin Atlantic Captain, spoke about her experience in becoming one of the airline’s first female pilots 25 years ago. Lucy worked hard to find a sense of belonging in an industry dominated by men and spoke passionately about how we can break down barriers to encourage more girls to pursue careers in aviation and STEM. Lucy’s passion for aviation and her drive to educate girls on what an incredible career becoming a pilot is, a career that doesn’t prevent you having a family life, shines through everything she says. Truly inspirational. 

Holly Branson with  Lucy Tardrew, a Virgin Atlantic captain in the Virgin Media office
Image by Kami White

Another member of the panel, Matt, spoke honestly about his past experience with alcoholism and why it’s important to build morale in your team, embrace different types of thinking, have fun at work, and really listen when you ask people how they’re feeling. His story inspired a young woman in the audience to stand up and share her experience of growing up with an alcoholic father. It was so moving to see these barriers being broke down right before our eyes. 

Jennifer who also works at Virgin Media, opened up about the biggest challenge in her life – when her husband and father of her children came out as gay. The experience taught Jen the importance of being vulnerable and being able to lean on people at work. As Jen put it, a problem shared is a problem halved and things are often not as bad as they seem in your head. Jen explained how she was worried that her children would be negatively affected by the shock of what they were going through. I got goosebumps when another colleague stood up and told us how her father coming out actually made her family stronger.

Holly Branson hosts a Belonging panel at the Virgin Media head office in Newcastle
Image by Kami White

At the end of the panel, one of the audience asked me about any challenges that I had faced in my life and one exmaple immediately came to mine. I told the audience about the time  when my husband Freddie and I started trying for a family and I started to struggle personally at work. Pregnancy just wasn’t happening for us, we suffered a couple of miscarriages and went through a few rounds of IVF – I felt my life was completely out of my control. Nine years ago, fertility struggles were not really talked about in an office environment, so every day I plastered on a smile and tried my best to get through the day in the office without breaking down. It was such a lonely place to be. It would be years before I confessed to my work mates how I’d been feeling and how isolated I had felt. 

I then touched on the acute anxiety I’d felt when returning to work after my first maternity leave. Again, I hadn’t shared how I was feeling at the time. As many of you know, going through anxiety on your own is no joke. But once I opened up about my feelings at work, so many people came up and talked to me about the fertility and anxiety challenges they were facing too.I was amazed how many were going through or had experienced the same thing. It was then I realised that the only way to break down barriers is to talk openly about them.

The panel was the perfect reminder that we each have a story to tell. When we open up about our challenges, we enable others to do the same.

It was such a moving morning - one I’ll remember forever and one I’m keen to replicate throughout the Virgin Family.

How can you create a greater sense of belonging in your workplace?