Expert Interview: Sarah Mann

April 24 2018 / by Mari Ryan

Sarah Mann is the Principal and Connector in Chief of Spark HR Solutionswhich provides practical and strategic HR solutions to business challenges, enabling organizations to leverage their talent and meet objectives.


Interview with Sarah Mann

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essential Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Sarah Mann. Sarah's a Connector-in-Chief and principal of Spark HR Solutions. She's a seasoned HR leader and executive with a wide reputation as a connector. Sarah has worked in both global and startup entities, and her experience includes senior level roles in HR, marketing, and operations at companies such as TJX, AMP Agency and ADP. Sarah, welcome. I'm delighted to have you here today.

Sarah Mann: Thanks, Mari. I am delighted to be here well.

Mari Ryan: Today we're going to explore the concept of connection. Connection is an important element; it's actually one of five basic elements in the concept and the model of wellbeing that we use. So, our conversation will focus on a little bit around this idea of connection, how that works within organizations and how it all comes together from the perspective of what employers are thinking about, but also what employees are thinking about. Let's start the conversation, Sarah, if we could, with talking a little bit about this idea of connection and social capital for our audience. Why don't we just define that so we have some context to set for this?

Sarah Mann: Social capital is, if you think about social capital the way I think about social capital, we are living in a relationship economy, so social capital is about who you know, who knows you, and how you engage with people for mutual benefit. That's my definition. If you were to look online, there's lots of formal definitions, but that's an easy way for me to think of it and to explain it to other folks.

Mari Ryan: In terms of social capital, it's about who we know, who knows us and how we get to know people, that comes in many different shapes and forms. If we're thinking about it within an organization, does that mean we really need to be networking within our own organization?

Sarah Mann: I think networking within organizations is highly valuable. I think networking outside of organizations is highly valuable, and there are rich rewards to be gained for everyone involved. Within organizations, one of the key benefits is feeling a part of … there are lots of stories and articles about isolation occurring in organizations and sometimes we need to see how that could come about. I can tell you at one point I was in a job where I was on conference calls from 8:30 to 5:30 most days. I was working in a small office, there weren't a ton of people in the office, and a lot of people worked from home, and there were days where I felt very isolated because primarily my connections were by telephone. That's one small example.

This notion of networking internally and getting to know people outside of your immediate peer group, your immediate work team, can have real benefits, not only for the work that needs to get done, but also for general wellbeing.

Mari Ryan: I think about this from the context of some of the work that we do, and sometimes we're doing an assessment with a client and we ask questions about the extent to which there's the social interaction or connection that exists within the workplace. Sometimes we ask a question about what people do at their lunch hour, and often we hear that the majority of the work force might say that they're eating lunch alone at their desk.

Sarah Mann: Perfect example of that isolation, and to some degree I think that's a function of the way many organizations operate today where people feel that they don't have the luxury of getting up from their desk and going, whether it's down to the cafeteria or out to lunch with colleagues. Most organizations run at such a rapid pace, people want to get it all done and then go home and do whatever it is that they do after work, whether it's families or community-based work or whatever it may be. I think that there's real pressure to get the work done and not take the time, waste the time, to engage and I think that that's a mistake for the individual. I think that's a mistake for the organization to not actually try to foster that with people.

Mari Ryan: Increasingly, I'm seeing with my clients that they are making modifications to the physical workspace, so cube farms are history and they're now creating work spaces that are collaboration spaces for teams to come together, and oftentimes much more informal types of things, like coffee bars, where people can just come together to interact on a serendipitous stopping to get a cup of coffee, not the kitchen kind of thing. We've seen more places where they can actually sit and have interactions -- are you seeing this as well?

Sarah Mann: I think that it is absolutely a trend so -- I actually have a friend who does construction in -- she's internal construction for a very large and I'll say traditional financial services organization. One of the things that they are doing is just that, transforming their work areas, so there are more common areas, there are places for people to do work and collaborate. They are eliminating a lot of offices, and they put in a common area just outside the executive suite, so that when the CEO is going to the cafeteria, or the little pantry area to get something to eat, there's an opportunity to interact with both her, as well as the executive team, so really breaking down walls both proverbial and actual.

There was just something yesterday, a really interesting article about seven different organizations and what their workspaces looked like, so companies like Thrive Global, with Arianna Huffington, and Evernote, and consistently across all of them their workspaces included the elimination of the cubicle farms as you've mentioned, and a multitude and variety of different types of collaboration spaces and working spaces, so if you need quiet time for creating and writing there's a place to do that, and if you need a place to go and brainstorm with others and have a team meeting with your peers, there's a place to do that so definitely think that organizations more and more going that way.

Mari Ryan: It's so important to have these different kinds of opportunities for people to be able to connect. When we think about this in this organizational structure, what role do managers play in helping their own employees make some of these connections and to start to build social capital?

Sarah Mann: I think the role that managers play varies greatly. I think the role that managers could play is one of is of being a connector and be a connection point. For instance, when new hires come into an organization, that's a great opportunity to help people acclimate by connecting them with others in the organization. One of the things that I will often recommend if I'm doing any type of onboarding work, for instance with a client, one of the things that I often recommend is providing a new hire with a network map. Typically, when new guys come in, we'll give them an organization chart and show them who's who and what's what and that's important, but a network map is different because this says to the individual, okay, based on your role and the type of work that you're going to be doing, here's a list of six, eight, twelve people that would be really good for you to connect with early on and start to build a relationship with, so that as the work ramps up you've got a baseline relationship already in place and you're not starting from Ground Zero. Depending upon the organization, you can build that right into somebody's onboarding plan, where you set those meetings up, or you just give somebody the list of names and help them go off. I think that managers play a crucial role in helping to not only set that up, but also send the message that this is really important to your development, this is really important to your performance, this is something that the organization values, and we want you to spend time networking and getting to know others in the organization.

Mari Ryan: I love that idea of a network map. That's so different than the traditional org chart and that's a nice way to be able to help people understand where the connections are that they need to be making.

Sarah Mann: It's not about level. There could be an administrative assistant who’s key to getting the work done and that's somebody that you need to build a relationship with, so it's not about level, it's about role and function.

Mari Ryan: That's excellent -- great idea. We we're hearing a lot more, or at least I'm reading and hearing a lot more, about this whole topic of belonging at work. I'm curious about what role connection plays in this. Let's explore this belonging at work a little bit.

Sarah Mann: I think it's important, I think that there's something to be said for feeling a part of versus apart from and I think that a lot of organizations are talking about diversity and inclusion, and I think a big piece of that inclusion is that people feel a sense of belonging. They belong to their work group or their immediate work team, that they feel some connection back to the organization, and that doesn't always have to be with a really large group of people within the organization.

Particularly for someone like myself, who tends to be more introverted, that belonging can transpire and occur with a tight-knit group as well, but -- and Gallup talks about this one in their engagement surveys, is do you have a best friend at work, and that's really the purpose, is getting at that belonging notion. I don't think that there's one prescriptive way to do it. I think it will look different for everybody both on an individual level and an organization level, and I think it's really crucial, particularly around retention and engagement because if somebody feels like they don't belong, and they don't feel a part of, the organization is probably not getting the most out of that individual.

Mari Ryan: I would think it would be an essential element to keep people engaged and to retain them, right? As human beings, inherently we want to feel we belong. It's just who we are as human beings. It seems that it would be so critical to have that level of satisfaction, or even happiness within a job. If you didn't have that belonging, I don't know how you could.

Sarah Mann: Connection is a primary human need and when we show up at work every day, we bring our whole selves; we do not leave half of ourselves at the door. That need for connection does not go away, just because now I'm sitting at my desk in my place of work. I think employers with strong cultures and smart employers will capitalize on that and integrate that into their culture for the well-being of not only the organization, but for the individual as well.

Mari Ryan: That's just a wonderful way to summarize it. Thank you, Sarah. If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you do, how can they find more out find out more about you?

Sarah Mann: My website is and I am so on LinkedIn.

Mari Ryan: Thank you, again, this was a delightful discussion. I loved making the connection with me and I hope all our audience members enjoy this connection as well. Thanks.



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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, company leadership, ceo, c suite leadership, employee wellness, worksite well-being, millennials, productivity, benefits, managers, hr, leaders, employee engagement, intrinsic motivation, managers and wellbeing, healthy workplace, employee performance, communication, employee camaraderie, connection at work, social connections, friendships at work, wellness strategy, wellness program, strategy, job security, work stress, stress management, stress, engagement strategey, diversity, inclusion, networking

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.