How to build close coworker relationships

How to build close coworker relationships

Employees who feel taken care of are more engaged workers willing to do more


Martha Ertman, Shula Malkin Darviche

Ping pong: a great way to bring employees together

Ping pong: a great way to bring employees together


A happily married couple we know advises that you should treat your spouse at least as well as you do a stranger. This advice holds true at work as well. What would it look like if managers were as polite and nurturing to one another and their subordinates as they are to customers? What if executives valued caring for co workers as much as clients?

There’s a reason law firms and advertising agencies still take clients out to the football matches, the theatre or even on a trip abroad. The plan is that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, but instead spills over into trust and collaboration in future business endeavours.

Psychologists call this relationship-building “social affiliation” or “tending”, and it helps sustain both health and wealth. And yet when it’s employee-to-employee, rather than employee-to-customer or employee-to-client, it’s often belittled as “office housework”.

Organisations hurt themselves by ignoring or devaluing those efforts that keep the office warm and sociable.

We propose a three-step solution to properly value the office tending work that lubricates its operations:

Identify the tending work 

To bring tending into the light, managers could assess tending across three dimensions: organisational, team and peer. At the organisational level, someone has to plan retreats, holiday parties and other culture-enhancing special events.

Team-building activities: any smooth-functioning team includes someone who “onboards” new members, organises team-building activities like lunches or running clubs and makes sure that extra efforts get publicly acknowledged. Finally, peer-level tending can take the form of planning an engagement party or staying late to help a colleague. Some of these tasks provide their own rewards, yet others get valued about as much as dusting and vacuuming.

Understand the benefits 

Plenty of organisations believe that money is how you keep score: their standard measures for assessing employees’ impact are tied to obvious metrics of profitability. But tending also increases productivity and, hence, profitability, so it should be measured too. Who sustains your culture, retains employees and engages your workforce? These activities – like tending – can be difficult to pin down to a dollar amount, but nevertheless plump up every business’s bottom line. Consider these three factors:

– Culture: Culture doesn’t just happen. The culture of an organisation is a function of its humanity. Ping pong tables and cafeterias create value by bringing employees together to eat and play, and the relationship-building banter that comes with both.

– Employee retention: Tending goes a long way in mitigating the “workers as machines” phenomenon common in industries requiring billable hours or sales quotas. Further, it makes employees “sticky” to an organisation.

– Employee engagement: Employees who feel taken care of, who feel a sense of “family”, are more engaged workers. They are willing to do more, take more personal initiative and hence imbue the organisation with momentum.

Assign value to the work 

The third and final step requires management to signal the value of the tending work that keeps their culture strong and employees present and engaged. Cash value is one possibility: include tending activities in key assessments like annual reviews, raises, promotions, and partnership shares. Social capital also counts.

Company, department and team meetings are perfect opportunities to acknowledge employees who take on tending activities consistently. In large organisations where manager approaches and style can vary dramatically, institutionalising tending as a core value of the culture can help to mitigate that variability and create accountability.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015

Martha Ertman is a professor of law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. Shula Malkin Darviche now leads a digital consulting practice


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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