Making Work Relationships Work

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By Patrick Psaila

There is a growing body of research that points at the fundamental importance of the relational aspect of organisations often referred to as Social Capital. One pivotal study is the recent Work Trend Index carried out by Microsoft. The research consisted of an analysis of trillions of productivity markers such as meetings, emails, chats and posts as well as a survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries around the world.

The study concluded that strong workplace connections had a substantial impact on two critical business dimensions: productivity and innovation. High levels of productivity, idea generation, strategic thinking, collaboration and brainstorming with others were positively correlated with stronger workplace relationships.

The results of over 50 studies on changing workplace trends since the Covid-19 pandemic revealed an expected but worrying fact. With more and more people resorting to remote work, employees consistently reported feeling disconnected from each other and from their organisations. Moreover, they reported a decline in work-based social networks and relationships. Companies have become more compartmentalised and interactions with people in the same teams are in decline. This is having a particularly detrimental impact on new recruits and the younger workforce.

When one reflects on the current situation it is of critical importance that companies keep investing in social capital even in the face of significant challenges brought about by the increase of remote working. Social capital refers to the formal and informal networks, interactions and relationships that operate within organisation, communities and cultures. Social capital is critical to a thriving organisation and facilitates the smooth flow of knowledge and information, the generation of new ideas, problem-solving, motivation and engagement and employee wellbeing.

In the light of this new working reality, characterised by remote or hybrid working environments, what can organisational leaders and employees do to build and maintain those crucial social networks, connections and relationships at work?

The shift to remote working has resulted in a marked increase in time spent in meetings, chats and emails. This has impacted the people’s operational workloads leaving less time and energy for informal discussions, networking and relationship building. Leaders, therefore, need to find ways of balancing workloads and demands on their people and give them space to nurture their work relationships. They need to publicly reward and encourage acts of social support, collaboration and teamwork and even integrate these behaviours with the company’s performance management systems.

Leaders also need to allocate time for regular one-to-one meetings with their team members to stay connected with their reality, challenges and concerns while providing team members with ongoing feedback about their performance and their progress.

Finally, leaders need to make an additional effort to ensure that nobody is left out or excluded from meetings, discussions or processes. Well-facilitated meetings reduce frustration and avoid the common trap of having a few people who dominate while others remain silent or lose interest. It is also important that meetings include the relational and social dimensions besides the operational agenda. Meetings should provide opportunities to strengthen work relationships.

Employees also have a responsibility towards nurturing positive working relationships. The following are some important behaviour and attitudinal factors that contribute towards a socially connected culture.

Listening and understanding: I cannot overemphasise the importance of genuinely listening to others and understanding them in developing solid relationships. Listening and understanding helps people feel validated and supported both of which are great relationship bonding agents!

Be honest and trustworthy: Trust is the foundation of any good relationship. It creates a psychologically safe working environment where people do not need to constantly watch their backs and can focus on being their best. It also means that difficult conversations can take place within a context of openness and honesty which makes conflict and agreement much easier to resolve.

Be respectful: Work relationships have three characteristics that make them unique. First, they often include people who have no choice in working together yet have to spend eight hours a day in the same team. They often occur within a context of stress and pressure, and they inevitably include an element of competition. This is especially the case when people are aspiring for career progression with limited opportunities for growth. These three conditions may easily result in tension ridden, competitive and disrespectful behaviour unless respect is emphasised as a critical value and behaviour.

Be accountable and reliable: This helps the people you work with to consider you as someone they rely on without worrying that they will be let down. Besides creating safety, this reduces unnecessary stress and conflict and paves the way for harmonious and productive relationships.

Be positive about people and situations: People are drawn towards positive people and find it easier to relate to them. Positivity is a great rapport builder especially when accompanied by empathy and sensitivity to other people’s reality.

Work relationships play a key role in creating an organisation that prioritises employee wellbeing and engagement. They are also good for the business as they facilitate innovation and productivity. Leaders who invest in social capital within their organisations promote learning and knowledge sharing, mitigate the impact of stress and pressure, increase employee retention and engagement and improve overall organisational performance. Humans have a basic need and are wired for social connection. Catering for this important need at the workplace is not a distraction but a fundamental element of a successful organisation especially in our new reality of remote and hybrid working arrangements.

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