Shaping workplace relationships: 5 little things to help

17 April 2020

Shaping workplace relationships: 5 little things to help

How much do we understand the extent that relationships impact on engagement and wellbeing in times of disruptive change? Our research took place in 2019 during the uncertainty of Brexit but has findings that are also relevant to the global pandemic touching everyone’s working lives, especially those working in isolation at home.

Much engagement research has focused on work aspects, but we also know that people need three conditions to feel engaged: meaningfulness and belonging; feeling psychologically safe and supported; and feeling available by having the physical and psychological resources they need. Few people in organisations work in isolation; their interactions with colleagues affect how they perform and feel, contributing to their experiences of meaningfulness, safety and availability at work.

For this research, we analysed diary entries using an app developed by clinicians from the University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust for tracking how people were feeling, adapted for feelings after interactions with colleagues, followed by interviews, in three large organisations - all members of the Henley Forum.

We found that relationships contribute to engagement and wellbeing, particularly psychological safety. Interactions with others reinforce or change how we feel, which affects our work. Relationship work precedes engaging in tasks, perhaps checking we feel in a good place – safe, connected and able. They are a major contributor to keeping people in organisations, but also pushing them to leave. Relationships affect teams working well together or feeling frustrated, distressed or angry.

Relationships vary from co-workers we have to deal with but don’t know well personally, or colleagues that we grow to like but the relationship remains transactional, who we work with and are fundamental to what we do while remaining emotionally neutral. Most of us have close colleagues, the few special relationships that sustain us through difficult times as well as good. These relationships featured the most in the study. Participants described colleagues who ‘I can be open and vulnerable with’, are ‘interested in me as a person,’ and ‘have my back’. At the heart of these relationships was a sense of shared values and interests built over time, trust and respect, which moved from professional to personal and involving shared experiences that have spilled over into the personal domain.

As individuals, close relationships have personal value as they make us feel significant, listened to, respected and give us feedback on how others see us and what we do, from a source we respect which enables us to take critique. Working with others allows us to feel safe to share with someone else who understands and for remote workers the contact that keeps us connected. The research revealed an informal workplace where relationships meant starting the day off well, chats and catch ups making people feel psychologically safe and connected, with humour helping to diffuse pressure.

This study reinforces the difficulties that many will face working unexpectedly from home, away from close colleagues, and highlights the importance of maintaining relationships to enable normal work to happen during current disruption and to minimise disruption when getting back to work when normality returns. In the video below, we share five ‘little things’ that can help keep workplace relationships going in the meantime.