When it comes down to it, businesses are made up of people who are all making connections to one another, and this can take many forms. In professional terms, it allows people to find various opportunities that can help them either advance in their careers or help the business itself achieve its various goals. On a personal level, human connection helps employees truly care about the people they’re trying to help, particularly in a business where a service is being provided to the underprivileged. So when employees interact and connect with one another, it can improve their relationships on multiple levels, helping projects run more smoothly and successfully.
Co-host of The Interview Luke James spoke to Kerry Demner, Head of Human Resources (HR) at Hightown Housing Association (HA) about the importance of making connections in business and life.
I started to think about university and realised that my passion was people, so decided to study HR and Sociology. After uni, I immediately went for my Charter Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) qualification and studied this for four years part-time whilst working. I started working in recruitment at a small family company. I was made redundant but, through studying, had a connection with someone working at Bedfordshire County Council. I started as a Recruitment Assistant, then HR Officer and then they needed to restructure their HR department, I put in a proposal around what that could look like and created a team leader role. I was interviewed and got the job, which meant people who were my peers were suddenly reporting to me, and some of them had been there for 20 years, so that was quite a transition! It worked really well, though. And then from there, I was headhunted to come here to Hightown, and I’ve been here for the past nine years now. When I started, I was a HR Business Partner in the HR department, reporting to a Head of Service, and we had 400 full-time employees. Now we’re at 1100 and I manage the whole function, reporting directly to David, our chief executive!
We launched a ‘Five Ways to Well-Being’ initiative five years ago, which has been a great instrument post-COVID but we’d actually embedded long before the pandemic. With it, we have well-being champions and mental health first-aiders, along with a program of activities that encourages inclusion in different ways. We have programs such as our pilates and meditation groups and walking and running clubs and larger corporate events such as our all-staff quizzes. We will also run specific themed events like Time to Talk Day or coffee and cake sessions. Different social events such as these create a sense of competition and fun. People really connect and make great friends.
Our workforce is nearly a 50/50 split between other ethnic minority groups and white British so we also found creating things such as our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Forum has also helped us make sure we’re creating change in the right way. Our Board have approved our three year EDI plan and the staff have voted on the priority order for the actions in the plan.
One of the basic things is just giving people the opportunities to engage, so a lot of our meetings are both virtual and face-to-face, so even people working from home that day can attend. In terms of commitment, it’s about being clear to people that if you can only dedicate the time to attend a few meetings, that’s absolutely fine. We’d rather you come in and take what you can from it than demand that you commit long-term. It makes it more accessible, and we’ve found it makes more people willing to try. And some of them will get hooked and want to keep coming.
I can’t lie, COVID was hard, particularly for us at Hightown. We were caring for the most vulnerable people with mental health or learning disabilities and housing some of the most vulnerable people and homeless families. We were also building houses at the same time. Very sadly we had staff and service users / residents pass away.
COVID really taught us the importance of communication, transparency, and really listening to what your staff are telling you. At the time, guidelines and information seemed to be changing daily. Schools were opening, then shutting; government advice around testing, vaccinations, etc. kept shifting. And we had to respond as quickly as possible, picking up on trends and then communicating back what our responses were. For example, there’s been an outbreak in a care home—how do we respond and what are you comfortable with? In that case, the staff said, “We’ll all stay at the home for two weeks and then another team can come in for the next two weeks, as that means less risk, less exposure, and fewer people impacted than people coming in and out.” It showed the dedication and compassion of our amazing care staff and how by listening we arrived at a solution. A very important lesson that I've carried forward.
I think it always comes back to making difficult decisions. If you want to be a good leader, it’s stepping into that zone when you need to, and making those calls. You need to be bold enough to say, “Let’s stop this project, it’s not working. Or let’s go with this new way forward” instead of just proceeding as it has been. If people can see that and trust that, that’s really what they need.
For me, it’s networking. If you seize those opportunities as I’ve done while co-chairing and chairing different network groups, it allows you to break down barriers and build strategic partnerships, whether that’s a law firm you end up using or a peer firm you need to benchmark your metrics with. It really is the thing that will make the difference, particularly with your own career progression as you have more to offer and greater insight in your industry and beyond. If you’ve made those connections, it really makes a difference.