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The Value of Reinvesting in Work Relationships

By Carole Wehn

As a business leader, you undoubtedly reaped the benefits of investing in relationships. For example, think of the value you’ve gained through:

  • The customer who became a close friend as well as a loyal partner
  • The mentor you met early in your career who took you under their wing
  • The information you gleaned by having lunch with employees in the cafeteria

These relationships helped you and your business get where you are today.

Now think of your employees who have shifted to remote or hybrid schedules. They don’t have the same opportunity for developing in-person relationships. How can you help them ensure they benefit the same way you did throughout your career?

Work Relationships Yield Better Performance

Employees are happier and more satisfied when they have friends at work. The feeling that “we’re all in this together” encourages a sense of ownership and commitment to the organization. Researcher Christine Riordan noted in Harvard Business Review that,

“Camaraderie at work can create ‘esprit de corps’ which includes mutual respect, sense of identity, and admiration to push for hard work and outcomes.”

For this reason, Gallup includes the question “do you have a best friend at work?” as part of its twelve measures of employee engagement. Their staff admits this is the most controversial of their survey questions. However, there is a solid link between work friendships and the level of effort employees expend on the job. Gallup finds:

“When employees possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business—actions they may not otherwise even consider if they did not have strong relationships with their coworkers.”

Workplace relationships provide employees with sounding boards, confidants, and supporters. They also build social capital. These connections make it easier to call in a favor from a coworker when help is needed. Microsoft researchers report that social capital supports innovation, lower absenteeism and turnover, and improved company performance.

Social capital also extends to customer and vendor relationships. Investing in relationships with business partners is more than just asking a few "getting to know you" questions upon the initial meeting; it involves getting to know them personally. Strong relationships help us navigate the inevitable business challenges.

CultureWise CEO and author David Friedman supported this idea in Fundamentally Different:

“When we make decisions that honor or value relationships, we create mutually satisfying interactions. We also typically get better results. We solve problems in ways that are long-lasting rather than temporary fixes.”

COVID’s Impact on Work Relationships

During the COVID lockdown, employees remained connected to the staff members they used to see regularly. And maintaining these close networks allowed them to complete their assigned work.

But despite these efforts, employees let the broader relationships suffer during this period. And these are the networks that encourage brainstorming, innovation, and strategic thinking. As a result, Microsoft’s research found that workers and teams became more siloed during the COVID pandemic.

Additionally, Forbes contributor Colleen Reilly noted that although social isolation and loneliness have been growing for some time, the pandemic worsened the situation. Suddenly, people for whom the workplace was their social outlet now operated from home alone. Reilly noted:

“In the past, in-person social interaction—including casual chats among coworkers—was essential for mental and physical health.”

Employees value the flexibility that comes with telecommuting; the downside is social isolation. It takes effort for organizations to combat the accompanying loneliness that can negatively affect employees’ job commitment and overall well-being.

In the Microsoft survey, workers report that they are in more meetings than before the pandemic. Yet ironically, they feel less connected to their coworkers.

Younger workers and those new to their organizations are particularly affected by the lack of relationships. They have missed out on the typical onboarding and networking opportunities. As a result, they are finding it difficult to feel engaged or excited about their work.

Author Ron Carucci observed in Harvard Business Review that many people’s personalities changed due to COVID. For example, people who were outgoing and social may be more reserved due to health issues or losing a loved one during the pandemic. Carucci wrote:

“Our values and priorities have shifted. Our senses of meaning and purpose have broadened. Our anxiety has increased. For some, tolerance increased while for others, it decreased. In short, we have to get reacquainted with who we’ve each become.”

So, reconnecting with coworkers once they’ve returned to the office doesn’t necessarily mean that relationships will pick up where they left off.

Reinvesting and Rebuilding Relationships

The outlook for relationships is not bleak. Silos and loneliness existed before the pandemic. Yet the current hybrid and remote workplaces require a more intentional approach to developing strong connections.

Organizations should strengthen three areas of company culture to help employees rebuild their work relationships:

  • Communication
  • Cross-functional teamwork
  • Leading by example

COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE

Employees who are not co-located can no longer rely on water-cooler conversations to gather information or spread a message. Consequently, organizations must prioritize communication more than ever before and issue regular, company-wide communications.

In addition, managers should strengthen ties with their team members by scheduling virtual one-on-ones. Their goals for such meetings should include the following:

  • Facilitating open and honest discussions
  • Providing performance feedback and asking questions
  • Listening to understand, not respond
  • Offering support and inspiration

To maximize these sessions’ effectiveness, organizations should work toward creating an inclusive environment where employees feel safe speaking up. People need to know they can contribute opinions without fear of being shut down or excluded. When employees feel a sense of connection and belonging, it encourages them to develop friendships.

Given the impact of social isolation and loneliness on employee mental health, managers should check in often with their team members. And whenever possible, they should communicate in person rather than sending an email. An email may get the job done, but it won’t build a connection with someone. Friendly phone calls or regular meetings are great ways to fortify a relationship.

Each personal interaction is an opportunity to understand the other person better. And the better managers know their direct reports, the more successful they’ll be in meeting their needs and encouraging higher-level performance.  

Employee benefits that bolster mental health are currently high on HR priorities. Leaders should ensure their employee benefits include support for emotional well-being, such as worker assistance programs and telehealth. And they should coach their managers to be aware of signs of employee burnout.

CROSS-FUNCTIONAL TEAMWORK

Intentional efforts to expand employees’ networks can include assignments to cross-functional teams. These opportunities are great ways to break down silos. Instead of “they” and “them,” employees are now “we” when they are aligned against the same goal.

The distance created by the COVID lockdown also enables a fresh start to relationships between departments and units that were previously rivals. As people come back together, leaders should encourage them to drop preconceived notions and old baggage to create mutually beneficial relationships.

Since meetings have become more frequent, leaders can maximize their usefulness. One way they can do this is to invite outsiders from other teams or organizations. These individuals can contribute diverse perspectives and serve as resources that workers can tap into in the future. And it’s important to create space for collaborative activities, even if they need to occur over electronic platforms.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

As with all elements of company culture, employees emulate what their leaders do and value the things their boss prioritizes. To help people build relationships, leaders should make time in meetings for social interaction.

Unfortunately, Microsoft found that meetings often exclude the social pleasantries and joking around that serve to reduce stress and make the time spent more enjoyable. Instead, leaders should ensure that everyone in the room and onscreen feels included and connected.

They should also plan get-togethers for remote and in-person workers. And if possible, they should decrease workload so that employees have time for networking and developing workplace relationships.

Gallup’s research cautions that employers must first attend to their staff members’ basic needs to build engagement. Employees must know what's expected of them. They need to feel that their manager cares about them. And they must be given a chance to do what they do best every day. Otherwise, the work friendships will just be gripe sessions.

Gallup's researchers observe, "When basic engagement needs are met, friendships can take on a powerful dynamic in which casual, friendly banter turns into innovative discussions about how the team or organization can thrive."

Gallup also recommends,

“Leaders must make it a priority to promote, attend and recognize company events so employees come to see socialization as the norm. Beyond the larger celebrations, leaders must also let employees see leaders taking lunch breaks together or visiting with managers and other employees. Small acts can make big impressions.”

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Does your company need to reinvigorate its focus on the importance of relationships, communication, and collaboration? CultureWise has resources to help. Check out our website for information about our approach to culture implementation. Sign up for our complimentary newsletter on culture thought leadership. Or book a call with a CultureWise specialist.