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  • Debra Cadman

The principles of good engagement and why it matters



As part of our series of articles that all contribute together to ‘make work human’, June’s focus is around successfully communicating.


1. We have covered transparency – being really honest and open.

2. We have also looked at some leadership characteristics that might not seem obvious but they certainly open you up to being a real, flawed human being which makes you much more relatable!

This third piece is all about how we use some of these positives – all steeped in owning the reality of a situation – to create some principles for the most effective engagement.

Our thinking is prompted by and within the context of Coronavirus but, vitally, good communications are most effective when they are genuinely part of your culture and not just an add-on during tough times

Why is engagement important?

There is significant research which promotes the fact that more engaged workforces are more committed to the business (go the extra mile); remain with the business for longer (intent to stay) and are more productive – which in the UK is an important fact as our country’s productivity rates are below those of a number of countries. Based upon research by Gartner in their Employee Capital Index report, engaged employees recover faster following restructuring and change. Engagement relates to the trust that people have with their organisation and, most importantly, the people leading that organisation.

Principles of Good Communication

Communication needs to be clear, honest and transparent: You need to ensure that you are treating your staff like adults. It is easy to infantilise workers when we are going through a difficult time. However I would argue this approach never works. People always talk to each other outside of work. The media is constantly telling us that we are due to enter a large recession, or some are even calling this a depression. It is unavoidable and it is uppermost in people’s minds. So if you are not straight with people, they will sense it and start to question what you are saying in communications.

Build in a two-way process: It is essential that employees are given the ability to ask questions and get answers. There are number of ways to do this, including great technology such as Slack, Teams and other similar platforms. But I would say that the most critical thing is that two-way comms bring another challenge for managers/leaders which is hearing things we may not want to hear or seeing questions that we may not want to answer.

We should encourage people to speak up - as the more they feel listened to the more they will buy into what is happening. Employees will feel engaged if they believe their feedback will be heard and considered.

Don’t be judgmental about what they ask. Don’t get irritated because they don’t seem super positive. Often, the reason people react to communication is that they don’t understand or are scared. Just because we know the end game, it doesn’t mean they do as they haven’t been involved in the way that we may have with the planning. You may need to communicate the same thing more than once.

It takes vulnerability to be open to other people’s ideas, especially when there is disagreement. And yet, constructive conflict often leads to collective genius. It builds trust. That’s how the best ideas emerge in a ‘new normal of collaboration’- more communal, less formal.

Employees need to understand the future of your business: this helps them to comprehend the decisions you are making and appreciate why you are making them.

There is a huge amount of uncertainty around the economy. They will want to know what you are doing to navigate through the pandemic situation, how are customers behaving, what is the financial situation of the business. Allowing them insight into the decisions you are making, and why, will again build trust.

Consider all of the groups you may be dealing with

I am sure that you are already looking at the different segments of your workforce – who can come in to work; who can continue to work from home; who needs to continue to be furloughed. They will also have personal circumstances which you will need to understand: childcare arrangements, home-schooling commitments, other dependants, are they shielding or vulnerable and other unknowns. How are they feeling about coming back to work? How are they feeling about remaining furloughed?

You also need to consider how managers can make time for more informal contact with people - instant messaging software makes it easy to check in with people every so often and see how they are doing. Little and often is the order of the day, just touching base to see how people are will be hugely valued at this time.

Communicate regularly and consistently

Work within a loose but defined structure, so that people know what to expect.

For example, a client I am working with adopts the following approach every week:

- a fairly personal introduction

- an overview of key parts of the business eg sales; operations; finance; logistics; customers; suppliers; marketing

- a section on people;

- a call to action (if needed)

- always ending with a reminder of who they can speak to

This goes out every week and if there is nothing in the section to update them on, we say there’s nothing to update on for this week (although that is rare).

Be concise: Don’t waffle. It’s tempting to say everything. If you have a lot to communicate about for one particular topic, then it may be that you do a separate communication on that.

Choose the right method: Do all your people have email? Is there a system that they log into where they can see the comms? Can you print it and add to a communal notice board? Video conferencing? WhatsApp? Social media… what works for your people?

Role and goal clarity

Thinking about the individual’s role and goals will provide some certainty in the short term. Again, research from Gartner shows that the greater the role clarity, the more employees will be effective in their role; productive and happy to remain with the business.

It is a good idea to consider what changes may have happened to the role as a result of the pandemic situation. Do the roles or goals need to be refocused? For example, a client of mine has changed the goals of the finance team to focus on cashflow and debt recovery to help strengthen their own financial position. The whole team is now working with customers to ensure payment of invoices and, where necessary, to agree deferred terms.

Networks and relationships

We have all heard about the sense of isolation that our lockdown has created. People have been separated from their families, friends and their colleagues.

It also drives collaboration and innovation in businesses.

So it is worth thinking about how networks within your business have been disrupted as a result of the change in working practices. Consider how those networks could be replaced? Ask your teams to think about this? Are operations still liaising with finance in the way that they used to in the office? If not, what impact is it having and how could they address that?

Equip employees to use informal and formal channels to improve current networks or to tap into new networks, both inside and outside the organisation.

Co-worker relationships are essential to individuals and businesses. 80% of employees cite their relationship with co-workers as the top reason for feeling engaged at work. All that office banter is essential for our wellbeing.

Get managers to hold informal team meetings. Many businesses are doing drinks and a chat on a Friday at 4.00pm where people have a glass of wine/cup of tea and chat to their colleagues about anything other than work. And remember your furloughed staff. Whilst they can’t undertake work during furlough, they can be involved in communication about the business, undertake training and be involved in team chats.

Reward and recognition

Finally, it’s likely that many of us will not be seeing pay increases or bonuses over the coming months. There will be many businesses facing financial constraints so give some thought to how you can continue to reward and recognise your workforce.

Some simple things:

Remember to say thank you. Everyone likes to be recognised and appreciated. This can be individual or team based. It can be from a senior person or a peer.

Consider what development you may be able to offer to people that’s affordable but beneficial. A number of my clients have rolled out virtual learning to their teams which is a good value way of engaging their people and giving them new skills.

This is longer than our usual articles so thank you for bearing with us. Engagement can be something of a vague concept but this kind of thinking and approach can make it a very real, hard-working concept that will serve you and your people well. Above all, it makes work more human.

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