Can relationships be the secret to a better workday?

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How can relationships at work help us all have better work days (yes, even when we’re working from home)

Are you finding your connections with your colleagues slipping away as the pandemic draws out, with your work silos becoming more entrenched, more rigid, and less connected? While many of us are working from home, making connections and maintaining our relationships with our work colleagues is likely pretty far down the list of priorities. But the truth is, when we ignore our relationships with our colleagues, we start to lose our relational coordination, which affects not only our work outcomes but also our wellbeing.

“Relational coordination is a process of coordinating your work with other people, through high quality communication,” said Jody Hoffer Gittel, professor at Brandeis University Heller School for Social Policy and Management, when I chatted with her last year.

“Picture it as a network among the various people or stakeholders who are needed to accomplish a task,” she said. “And when you’re able to build relational coordination among people, you see better quality outcomes, better safety outcomes, and more efficiency because people don’t have to duplicate each other’s work, and they’re not working at cross-purposes.”

Jody’s research suggests that good relational coordination helps us feel better in the workplace, too.

“Strong relational coordination has a consistently positive impact on worker wellbeing, including high levels of satisfaction and engagement and lower levels of burnout,” she said. “There’s also evidence that financial outcomes that are beneficial to the organization, and its better for the clients when work colleagues are more coordinated.”

Unfortunately, the culture that has developed in many organizations means that people with expertise, knowledge, and accountability are bundled together in silos and status hierarchies. And this requires deliberate and intentional effort to create structures, practices, and connections to break down these silos in order to build relational coordination across the organization.

So, what can we practically do to re-focus our energy and attention on relational coordination when it seems almost impossible while working remotely?

Jody suggested trying the following:

  • Map your relationships — Visualize the relational coordination currently within your organization. Try identifying a network of communicating and relating around a particular work process, and then draw a small circle for each workgroup involved. Now draw lines to connect the circles, with different types of lines to represent either weak or strong ties between them. This can look quite different from the traditional hierarchical visual representations that many organizations have to describe relationships. And chances are once you do a relational map you’ll see your organization in a new way — multitudes of networks of strong and weak ties — and it can be hard to go back to seeing it just as a bunch of boxes and arrows. Not only is it a helpful diagnostic tool, it can also be a great way to have conversations with people in your organization as you do it together.
  • Foster shared accountability — While accountability may exist in your organization, it can be that you’re responsible for one thing (it might be quality), and someone else is responsible for something else (perhaps budget), and someone else for yet another thing (say, worker’s experience). However, by creating a felt accountability for each other’s goals you can then each contribute your expertise to helping meet all of these goals, rather than pulling in your own direction. It’s about recognizing that you do have multiple goals as an organization, and in the short term they can seem like they’re in conflict, but when you’re all accountable for achieving these goals it can break down silos and be more sustainable.
  • Have conversations of interdependence — By asking people in different roles across your organization these three questions: “What is your work and what do you find most meaningful about your work?”; “What is it about how I do my work that helps you do yours?”; and “What can I do differently to help you even more?”. While you might go into these conversations thinking that your work doesn’t really intersect in any way, you can discover how to improve interdependence and help others to better achieve outcomes.

Are there ways you can take time to prioritize relationships with your colleagues to help build your relational coordination at work?