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Ask an Expert: Director of EPIC, Gary Cookson, on how HR can cultivate connections and enhance engagement

By 26/02/2021January 18th, 2022Employee Engagement, Leadership
How HR can cultivate connections and enhance engagement

A recent survey has found that 33% of UK respondents feel less connected towards both their company culture and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tackling the connection challenge of COVID-19 in this isolating pandemic has been one of HR’s most significant tasks. However, that has not been the only worry for HR professionals. Organisations have had to focus on employees’ emotions to help restore productivity and enhance engagement levels.

While we’re currently at a fork in the road, leaders must resist their command-and-control instincts and instead look to bring their people closer than ever, ensuring they get the best out of their workforce.

To assist the HR profession in cultivating connections and improving engagement levels, we asked the Director of EPIC, Gary Cookson, seven unique questions on this exact topic. A household name to many throughout the HR landscape, Gary has used his 20 years of experience in senior roles to share some insightful information to get the HR community thinking.

1. NHR: How would you act if an employee was less connected to the business when working from home?

Gary Cookson: There is any number of reasons for this, and it’s important to correctly diagnose it.

Remote working may not be the issue – you may just think it is. The reason for a lesser connection could be to do with a working relationship, boredom, technology issues, company policy or any number of things.  Be careful of reaching a conclusion from any isolated piece of data – triangulate as much as you can.

People tend to leave a wake online Notice what they say and how they say it. Notice the outcomes they achieve versus the apparent effort involved in achieving them. Notice what other people are saying about the person. Notice the contributions they make or the ones you expect them to.

Still, they don’t make notice their interactions with others. Notice also if they appear to be working excessive hours or an unpredictable pattern – and talk to them about what’s happening for them, what’s on their mind, and what steps they are taking to look after themselves and what help you could give them.

We need to recognise that there are now, more than ever, multiple stakeholders in an employee’s willingness and ability to be connected to their employer. They may have lots of people (family mostly) in their “work” environment, making it difficult to focus on one or the other. They may have technology or work environment issues that prevent them from giving their best. They may have NO-ONE around them, and that makes it worse for many people no matter how engaged they are with your workplace.

Notice things like if someone is ordinarily vocal in a meeting but suddenly aren’t, or if someone should have a view on a topic but doesn’t voice it, or if someone seems to be making far more contributions than normal, possibly in an effort to be seen to be doing so.

We should be less concerned with presenteeism and more concerned with outputs and outcomes, trusting the employee to balance things in a way that works for the employer and for them.

The starting point would be to talk to the individual and gather more data. Based on what they say (or don’t say), there could be multiple routes to go down.

2. NHR: How can you build the company’s core values into the culture within a remote environment?

Gary Cookson: When many organisations suddenly had to (perhaps even two or three times) begin working remotely in masse, few, if any, took the opportunity to review their culture and whether it would translate into remote working.

But they should have – and still could.

From the well-known Tuckman model, we were all plunged back into the Forming and Storming phases, no matter what phase we were in previously. We have a great opportunity to review and reset the culture to fit with remote or hybrid working – to agree and work out new rules for working together and establish new values.

Once that’s done, then carry on noticing and recognising the right behaviour – and encourage everyone to do the same – make a big deal of it if you need to, but tailor your approach to each individual based on what you feel would work best.

3. How can you improve an employee’s sense of belonging?

Gary Cookson: The desire to belong and fit in is a powerful motivator in both society and the workplace. In the workplace, we need to push at the open door that is an employee’s desire to fit in and contribute to a group in order to unlock their motivation.

In my Amazing Workplace rhyme, I make a comment about someone wanting to fit in being influenced by the attitudes of the people around them, in that the feeling of belonging can be enhanced by things other people do. There is a danger of groupthink and stifling diversity here, though.

In a few of my blogs, I’ve written about things that help the concept of engagement, particularly for new employees when the need to fit in is at its greatest. I have belonged to lots of sports clubs and teams over the years and have often felt both a sense of belonging and a sense of isolation. I’ve reflected on what made the difference between these two extremes, and it is most definitely the attitude of my teammates that had the greatest effect. When I’ve had a leadership role in these teams, I’ve gone out of my way to ensure that new team members feel like they are wanted, that their contributions are recognised and that they fit in with the team. And mostly, it’s worked too.

In the workplace, I’ve felt a strong sense of belonging in just two organisations I’ve worked for. These experiences were years apart and at different stages of my career. In both cases, though, it was linked to:

a) Working for a manager who is well respected.

b) Having opportunities to socialise with colleagues and being encouraged to do so, whether I ended up doing so or not.

c) Feeling like the organisation actually wanted me there and needed me to do something, and that they respected my skills to do so.

There are things that make someone feel they belong in an organisation, and these can work extremely well, but there comes the point where the employee becomes indoctrinated in that organisation’s way of doing things and has echoes of brainwashing, so much that it’s difficult to undo and affects an employee’s ability to fit in with any subsequent organisation, despite any efforts made by that organisation.

I’d recommend asking each employee what would help them settle in and feel that sense of belonging. It might be a daft question at first, and it might take a few attempts to get a useful answer, but what harm can it do?

It might help that employee to reach their optimum performance and engagement levels quicker, and avoids the chance that these levels won’t be reached at all.

4. NHR: If you were to set clear goals to improve remote employee engagement, what would be your top three?

  1.  Gary Cookson: Social relationships. Find something in common with them, something you both have an interest in. People build relationships online all the time through social media, and often they’re as strong or stronger than the bonds created in person. Connections online are often based heavily on shared interests and work really well. It could be something like favourite sports teams, common places people have lived or visited, favourite TV shows, or shared pastimes. Connections can be built far easier on social levels than about work. Make time to find out about people and give them chances to find out about other people and talk to them without talking about work.
  2. Tailor your approach. Everyone’s circumstances and needs are different – find out what they want and need, and do your utmost to give that to them. Don’t try to adopt a one size fits all approach.
  3. Keep regular communications and, to an extent, routine too. People tend to like familiarity and “rhythm” in work – so if the team meeting is Monday 10 am, keep it that way to help people find comfort in that familiarity.

5. NHR: Alongside virtual team building activities, how can HR make collaboration more effective?

Gary Cookson: Virtual team building activities can work well. They don’t have to be all done online, though some will be. Some of the best blend online and offline challenges and get people working together to achieve their goals in healthy competition.

Examples of virtual team building activities that are popular – Virtual Escape Rooms, Virtual Meeting Bingo, Through the Keyhole, Show and Tell – are all free and easy to set up, and many more involve minimal cost and effort like the Virgin Pulse Global Challenge.

The same is true of work-related challenges. Those that involve collaboration and a healthy dose of gamification are likely to encourage people to work together and bond as a team.

Work-related competitions could include the least amount of time spent in virtual meetings, least emails sent, or anything that links their work together with others to produce shared output – maybe giving points to teams who show evidence of collaboration towards their goals.

Don’t forget the importance of job (re)design in this. If the duties are crafted in such a way that they require joint efforts, and if performance is measured and judged on collective effort and output, and if leaders themselves recognise and appreciate team results as opposed to glorifying the individual, these things will help to develop a team spirit and bond.

We can also ensure that we help people to get the right equipment and set up for long term remote working, and by asking and listening, we should be able to shape the right environment for them.

6. NHR: Why is it so important to have the right communication tools in place?

Gary Cookson: Using the wrong tool can be painful and awkward. Just because you HAVE all the technology available, doesn’t mean you have to use it. We should be mindful of individuals’ cognitive load and blend digital and non-digital forms of communication. If someone wants to have cameras off in a meeting or have a phone call instead of a virtual meeting, why not go with that? But we also need to ensure that we utilise communication methods that people would naturally use to talk to each other – don’t force people onto Teams if they prefer WhatsApp and so on.

7. What is your best advice for HR leaders trying to improve employee engagement remotely?

Gary Cookson: Ask people – they know themselves and their situations best.

Listen to what they say – properly listen, without judgement, without waiting to say something you want to say back.

Act on what they say – show them that their views are important and matter.

About Gary Cookson:

A household name to many throughout the HR landscape, Gary Cookson has over twenty years’ experience within senior leadership roles across a variety of sectors. Gary continues to gain a credible amount of reputation through his award-winning training, tutoring, speaking and blogging.

Combining his expertise, Gary is now the Director of EPIC HR. EPIC specialises in helping people and places to evolve, improve and compete – providing a range of HR, OD and L&D consultancy and personalised training services.

Founder of EPIC, Gary Cookson












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