The danger of neglecting work relationships

By Joanna Gaudoin

Hybrid working: there is no doubt that it has brought many benefits. New research suggests that Brits value personal life as much as – if not more than – work. And hybrid working has done a lot to provide this balance, including making time for home-focused activities, saving time travelling on packed trains and sitting in traffic jams, as well as often providing greater peace and quiet for people to work uninterrupted.

Unfortunately, hybrid working has also been to the detriment of professional relationships. Fewer casual conversations take place as people don’t see one another around the office as much anymore. As a result, they no longer build professional relationships unless they plan their communication and make a more intentional effort.

Furthermore, being away from the office allows people to ‘hide’ from those they find challenging to deal with, and not dealing with issues rarely has a good outcome.

What this means is that people only engage with those they really have to when they have to;  beyond that, people engage only with those they like and want to connect with.  The fall-out of this, of course, is that they are less likely to engage with those who are very different from them, setting back the good work that has been done as part of companies’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) efforts.  Without the ability to practise some of the lessons of EDI – such as listening to diverse/adverse opinions and perspectives – inclusive culture development stalls and, worse, might even devolve into pockets or cliques of ‘birds of a feather’.  The more ‘similar’ people stay in their own groups, the more they lose out on the benefits of diversity of thought within their organisation. There is even the possibility of them forgetting the true benefits of EDI and perhaps even questioning the need for it.

In other words, one of the unwanted consequences of hybrid working is the deterioration of EDI efforts and on an individual basis, potentially closing oneself off from diverse thinking.

Given the efforts most companies are making to advance EDI, it is worthwhile encouraging our colleagues to spend some time as individuals considering whether this is what is happening in their own working life.

How to encourage action to work more inclusively

One simple way to assess whether hybrid working is impacting someone’s own working relationships, is for that individual to track who they engage with and how frequently. You might suggest that they try this over a span of two or three weeks and compare it to the circle of people they had engaged with in previous times when everyone was at the office more regularly. You might also suggest that people consider whether there are fewer informal interactions with colleagues, and to also compare the quality or depth of those interactions to previous times.

Once this assessment has been done, and if people find that their circle of interactions has narrowed and perhaps become more homogenous, here are a few steps you can suggest to them to make a change. These actions will help people form closer relationships and be more inclusive whilst still benefitting from hybrid working:

1. Consider overall how you are spending your working time. Are you making enough time to connect with others and collaborate on challenges together?

2. Consider your most immediate relationships at work – the ‘obvious’ people you need to engage with. How positive are they? What are the dynamics at play? If less than positive, what can you do to improve them? Even small things, like calling up someone for a virtual coffee, can make a big difference! Focus on 2-3 relationships at a time.
3. If you are a team leader, are you spending enough time on managing and developing your team, and where relevant, managing upwards too?  It’s vital to understand how your team are getting on at work – how they are working on what they need to do of course, but also any blockages or frustrations they are feeling.  Making time to discuss their career development is also important.  When this doesn’t happen, people don’t feel valued and it is now a major reason why people are easily tempted to move on. Try to make specific time for both these types of discussions; if that is within a regular catch-up, then it’s key to ensure that enough time is put aside.  In terms of managing upwards, remembering that your boss is human too will help build the relationship, as well as considering their agenda and key current focus.
4. Think about people in the wider business who can help you in the broader sense. This might be from a day-to-day perspective like helping deliver a better work product, or from a longer-term perspective like progressing your career. Who are those people?  Are they aware that you exist, and what you do?  Generally speaking, outside your own daily interactions, people won’t be aware of you and of what you do unless you build relationships with them. You should consider that those who don’t know you may ultimately make decisions about what you work on and your next role, so it’s important to focus on these more strategic relationships.
5. Think about whether you are only really making time for people who you like or who are similar to yourself, with similar views and life experience. Are you being less open to the contributions of people who are different to you than you were when everyone was in the office? Is there anyone who might challenge you more and get you to consider new ideas and different ways of thinking? How might embracing a more diverse dialogue benefit the business and your own work? How might this wider circle of contacts benefit in turn from more interaction with you?

Since the pandemic, many people have understandably wanted to focus more on non-work activities, which is important. However, positive professional relationships are vital, as none of us can work alone.  More than that, we can all benefit from connecting with a variety of people with different experiences, values, beliefs and assumptions.  And if people notice that EDI efforts are dissipating as a result of hybrid working, this may be used as yet another reason to recall people into the office on a more regular basis – and who wants that?

As companies are gearing up for a busy time, this is the ideal time to consider the above points and how you can influence  your own and others’ more fulfilling and productive professional relationships, even as we all continue to work remotely for part of the time.

Suggested Reading


How to Make the most of a team’s collective intelligence




5 Steps towards building Inclusion for remote teams