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Are we making an engagement mountain out of a molehill?

I recently watched the brilliant Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk: Forget the pecking order at work. Margaret talks eloquently about the value and productivity benefits of social capital – the bonds between colleagues at work. She posits that it’s not just the people you hire, it’s the bonds of trust and loyalty between them that lead to great things. “It’s not the bricks, it’s the mortar.”

Margaret’s talk was all about high performing teams versus high performing individuals. And the counter-intuitive research which shows that it is not singularly high IQ, or combined high IQ in teams which predicates great performance; it is levels of empathy and social interaction.

Of course, Gallup recognises this with the key employee engagement marker when it asks: “Do you have a best friend at work”? But watching the TED Talk gave me a chill. Have I been thinking about employee engagement wrong for all these years? That footnote to engagement – having good mates at work – is that the secret sauce which leads to productivity, success and so engagement? (Because while we’re talking about pecking order, we can touch on the chicken and egg scenario which is what comes first: performance success or engagement?).

Perhaps it is as simple as giving people the space – and time – to get to know one another around the table football, over beers, at summer BBQs; building success one shared joke at a time. And a clear tone from the top that this time isn’t wasted time – it’s actively contributing to the success of the business.

And then another thought struck me; if great work is inherently social, and sociability is the bedrock of great work – what does this mean for the rise in remote working? Is this a contributory factor to the continued woes in UK productivity? And when you’ve got a great set of mates at work, and you are asked to start hot-desking, or working from home a couple of days a week – does this dramatically reduce the social capital, or does it – over time – increase it? Does it allow for people to expand their social circle and allow for richer work in the long-term?

I’m still discovering the answers to this conundrum every day, and this brilliant talk made me stop and think differently about employee engagement yet again. It reminded me again of the ingredients we need for a thriving culture where people are engaged.

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