Sunday, 21 June 2015

Relationships in the office environment

Relationships in the office environment are, sometimes, the nightmare of HR. I'm not talking about romantic relationships - that's a completely different chapter. I'm talking about the "common" person-to-person relationships that people tend to form with those around them. Once considered "a waste of working time" and "a burden to productivity", now, they seem to be approached under a more positive light as something with a potential to boost productivity, creativity and employee loyalty.

'Cow Bell' by jar (away) under
a CC license

Working in an environment where you know that you can count on people, not only as co-workers but also as human beings creates a feeling of safety and helps motivate people and brings out higher levels of commitment on their behalf. Good relationships at work creates a very positive environment that reflects to the organisations and can also be visible further beyond to customers or other third parties.

The problem with interpersonal relationships is that they may be unpredictable. People have their bad days, employees experience stress, bad things happen that spoil moods, etc. And, guess what, bad relationships can easily poison the work environment, negate the aforementioned benefits and lead to penalties for both productivity and creativity.

So how does on manage the human reationship side of the work environment?
As with most things, the answer is that it depends. It depends on the nature of work, the number and types of people involved, the structure of the organisation, the physical arrangements in the office space, etc. Interestingly, dealing with problems related to human behaviour is not an exact science, so there is always some amount of uncertainty on the potential results of any intervention.

The first thing that experts might advise would be to have a part of the HR policy dedicated to interpersonal relationships. This can cover things such as resolving disputes, preventing and dealing with any kind of harassment, establishing a code of behaviour in the office and may even deal with romantic relationships between co-workers. Some may find having an established HR policy on such things annoying, intruding or extreme. Despite that, the clear advantage of having a structured such policy in place is transparency and consistency. Established procedures (that are practised as they are supposed to) are valuable tools to the hands of both managers and employees and are associated with a feeling of fairness.

Without clear procedures, it comes to the skills of a manager or of some good colleagues to help resolve a dispute and drive things back to normal. That is not necessarily less effective than following an established procedure but, for sure, it becomes a venture in uncharted waters everytime relationships cause trouble in the office.

As usual, a lot can be done to prevent relationships going seriously south. Selecting the right people in the first place, populating teams at work looking not only at job-related qualifications but also for personality traits, giving the possibility and the time to people to interact and get to know each-other are some of the things that can contribute to an environment of positive relationships. And, of course, people can be encouraged to improve their interpersonal skills and actively work towards reducing friction with their colleagues, thus avoiding causing tension in the first place. Employers can do a lot to help with that, too. Many people have proposed tips towards building a positive workplace environment and some of those are surprisingly easy to follow.

Having a more cynical look at relationships at work one can say that, eventually, trouble will arise. The thing is to have in place both people with the right emotion-reacting skills, the time and the will to resolve the problems, rebuilt their in-between trust and move along, as well as an infrastructure (e.g., HR professionals) that can guide or facilitate the process.

After all, work is better when people enjoy being there!

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