Last week we held a roundtable, as we often do with HR leaders across the St. Louis area. This discussion was focused around Creating a Sense of Belonging and Connection in a hybrid environment.

You may remember we did an interview with Pamela Morris-Thornton (PMT) VP, Diversity Equity Inclusion at Panera Bread last Fall. We were so energized by the work she is doing that we wanted to bring together other leaders for a broader conversation.

PMT kicked off the discussion talking about the importance of belonging and stressing that it is all of our responsibilities – we have a human need for connection, to be seen and heard. She shared a story from her daughter’s school of a situation in which a new employee of the school left because she wasn’t feeling a part of the institution – she was missing that connection to her leader and her work environment. That led us to the question: What is our obligation as employers to ensure that our team members feel seen, heard and supported, that they ultimately belong and can fully contribute?


PMT shared how Panera’s approach to culture transformation to address belonging and inclusion has been very intentional. Panera very thoughtfully defined what they wanted the experience to be for their team members and wanted to make an impact at every step of the associate journey. Sense of belonging and inclusion is threaded into all facets of the employee lifecycle. This is modeled from the top of the organization.

Some examples of the intentionality is how they bring together team members for moments that matter such as:

• Opportunities to “give back” by distributing food in the community, reading to children, etc.
• Invitation to participate in focus groups led by their business resource groups to have open dialogue about the needs of specific communities within Panera, such as LGBTQIA+ or changes in the political environment such as Roe vs. Wade
• Encouraging internal skip level conversations to build greater connection within all levels of the organization

These intentional offerings have led to an environment of openness, great brainstorming, creative solutions and a sharper view of the needs and feelings of associates. Although the change is internal, PMT shared that customers are seeing and sharing the impact that the Panera culture has on the customer experience.

Measurement + Accountability

You may be wondering how Panera checks in on culture and the experience they are continually building and refining. While they do have a survey focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging that gives them insight as to what team members are looking for in their experience, they also have quarterly conversations with leaders and team members to check the commitment level, asking what’s working and what’s not. They are constantly making sure that leaders are aligned on expectations, modeling the behavior and asking associates for feedback.

Sharing Successes

As PMT shared the Panera story, several other participants voiced varying stages of their journey to creating work environments, where team members feel that they belong and are able to connect with their workplace and each other. Best practices shared included:

• A formal listening strategy with a balance of survey and conversation
• Formation of employee or business resource groups
• Creation of a company Instagram account where team members can submit photos and experiences to build & foster relationships
• Optional sharing of calendars to allow transparency and insight into the whole person
• Wellbeing conversations and goals asking, “what makes you feel whole?”
• Empowering team members at all levels to reach out and connect – make the time!

Voicing Challenges

Understandably, there are bumps that many organizations are dealing with as they try to create connected workplaces. Some of the challenges shared were:

• Finding ways to engage the younger generations
• Helping leaders understand value of flexing their style to connect with team members
• Understanding and respecting team members who don’t want to get involved or get personal (they still want to
feel a sense of belonging)
• Addressing the unstated expectation from some leaders to return to office
• Struggle to connect with truly remote team members
• Need for business etiquette in onboarding, especially younger generations

One size doesn’t fit all

If we took one thing away from this conversation, it’s that there isn’t one right answer to how to create a more connected workplace where team members they belong. We think it can be agreed upon that it starts with listening and learning team members’ needs, understanding where and how you can respond and make the greatest difference.

There was a lot of conversation around not focusing so much on quick solutions, and instead spending more time listening before acting to better ensure that the next step that the organization takes is in the right direction.

As always, we enjoy and appreciate the willingness of leaders in our community to come together and support one another with ideas, “me toos” and even the courage to say “I don’t know!!” We look forward to the opportunity to continue these conversations and watch the relationships grow between members of this community.

And THANK YOU to PMT for your insight and guidance during this session!