Even people on the introvert end of the spectrum are social animals. How we get along and cooperate with others is a marker for all forms of health, security, and stability in every aspect of life.
As full-timers spend at least a third of their waking hours at work more days of the week than not, this is equally true of working relationships. People may spend more time with coworkers than family over a year, and be in touch with colleagues while at home more than they’re in touch with family members while working.
If relationships within the home aren’t healthy, there are multiple impacts on everyone concerned. Within the workplace, this remains true, but there are other impacts on productivity, profitability, and employee engagement.
The American analytics company Gallup has long asked ten key questions when researching employee engagement, one being, ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ Gallup finds that while some managers frown upon close personal working relationships, seeing them as unprofessional and counter-productive, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Female employees are more than twice as likely to report feeling engaged at work if they have a close friend there, but there’s also a significant engagement bump for men. The idea of a ‘best friend’ might seem, well, not ‘businessy’, but surveys find that when these relationships are fostered:
There’s increased focus on company culture in the modern workplace. Employee engagement and culture interrelate and influence each other, and relationships are entangled with both. Let’s untangle it by zooming in on how to improve the first two by improving co-worker relationships, for the company’s sake and theirs.
It’s one thing to encourage friendships at work, but if the background isn’t right, they can hinder more than help. Imagine friends at a workplace where they’re never praised for excellence, are unclear what’s expected of them, suffer from poor or bullying management, and find the culture as formally described to be the opposite of reality.
In that toxic context, friendship will consist of a lot of complaining and whispering, contributing to increased fragmentation and disengagement. Great working relationships are no substitute for getting workplace fundamentals right, and are more likely to bloom in a healthy environment.
You can’t engineer friendships; there’s an alchemy to them. But if camaraderie, communication, and common purpose are built into a workplace culture, people are more likely to get along even if this doesn’t grow into close friendships.
Include relationships in foundational documents and practices, such as mission statements, onboarding, exit interviews, and training programmes. Treat relationships as a measure of company health by including them in KPIs, performance reviews and so on. Gallup includes that question in their surveys for good reason, and you should, too. Retention, collaboration, productivity, morale, and teamwork are all places where relationships contribute, or not, so look for indicators in those areas.
Cliches become cliches because they’re true, one such being ‘teamwork makes the dream work’. One-to-one relationships are more likely to develop from strong teams and vice-versa, so apply the advice in the section above to your approach to team-building.
There are endless ways to build and maintain healthy teams. You can use closer relationships to inform approaches. If co-workers get along because they’re great at active listening, for example, consider holding a team training to enhance that skill more widely. Best practice is wonderfully scaleable.
It’s all very well having values like trust, respect, gratitude, and transparency in company culture missions and metrics, but if everyone doesn’t play along they’re not going to work in practice. Ensure every employee at every level understands and is reminded often of the essential role they play, personally, in ensuring values are fully lived.
Find ways to quickly spot and repair situations where employees aren’t ‘walking the walk’, letting people go if necessary. There’s nothing more corrosive to relationships than inauthenticity in stated values, seeing people often being disrespectful or worse with no consequences. People need to feel safe and valued to truly be their best selves.
Great as good working relationships can be, there are times when they don’t have desirable effects. Friendships can turn into cliques, which can lead to unhealthy and even toxic developments between groups or teams.
It’s a human tendency since the dawn of time to need outsiders in order to feel like insiders. Don’t turn a blind eye to any ‘high school’ developments in your company, because the personal and business costs of division, bullying, and othering, and the resulting disengagement, can be high.
With a growing trend towards remote working arrangements, a new challenge is how to foster good and even close working relationships when people are far apart. Creative approaches to tools, practices, and events can make a world of difference.
Modern job seekers aren’t just looking for a good financial package or purpose, they want to know their workplace will be collegial at a minimum, even if it’s virtual. If you build great relationships in the workplace everyone—employees, customers, clients, the company itself—will profit. So invest in them wisely.