What do we mean by ‘relationships’?
I’m not talking about the romantic kind, but the work place kind between colleagues. We think we know what relationships means, but there are so many kinds – between colleagues, partners, friends, children, they can be almost anything. In essence though, relationships are the things that weave us humans together, the social interactions that we develop over time. They will vary in each and every context and can be anything from deep and based on solid foundations, to tenuous and fleeting.
They are also one of the many things that has been put under significant strain over the last two and a half years. What we thought we knew about our teams and our relationships has been thrown about, pushed, pulled, chewed up and spat out in a shape that continues to be unfamiliar to us.
And the strain is beginning to show. Many of the workshops I have facilitated in the past few months have been centred around relationship building. This focus now sits alongside several other goals such as understanding and articulating team values, re-aligning with team purpose or creating new objectives and next steps. Relationships between team members and between teams don’t exist in a vacuum, but are part of the living and breathing organisational dynamic. Facilitating conversations on how this all fits together is very much part of the equation as we work out how to move forwards.
Tensions and challenges in teams, or more widely in organisational relationships, come in all shapes and sizes. You may be seeing misunderstandings between people or teams (you think you are on the same page, but are you really?). There may be a lack of willingness and enthusiasm to get on with things, with people feeling more cautious than before. Perhaps deep trust is no longer quite there and people aren’t sharing as much as they could be. Collaboration may not be as collaborative as you would like, missing the right input from the right people. There is quite possibly a general feeling of team members not knowing each other any more. Has everyone changed, or just the way you all work together? It’s probably a bit of both.
The causes of difficulties in relationships at work can be complex and varied. But what appears to be in common are sizeable shifts in both personnel and working patterns. New people joining the workforce, people moving on to other jobs, restructuring, downsizing, upsizing and just generally shifting patterns of the way things are being done. This is tough for relationships between team members and a lot of people are now working day to day with people who they have never actually met in person.
There is also perhaps a sense that people miss each other! At an in-person workshop I facilitated recently, we created a World Cafe space for conversations. There was a lot of hugging going on as people walked around and saw people they hadn’t seen in the flesh for a long time. Even in the world of work, people value that human touch!
Now, I’m not saying we all need to start going around hugging each other at work, but seeing as your team has had to relearn, a few times over, how to function in person. Then remotely, and then in a hybrid fashion with different expectations as office and workplace culture has been turned on its head. It shouldn’t be a surprise if your team is suffering from something of an identity crisis.
So what can you do?
For a start, understand that this is real – things are different and this new way of being requires some navigation so don’t pretend it is business as usual. Speak to your team members about how they are feeling and what their challenges and ideas are. Check the drift – are you still all doing what you think you are doing, or have you deviated off course?
Work on helping people to get to know each other again. There are lots of different ways of doing this, but if you are able to, all coming together in person is a great way to create space for those conversations. Creating the right environment to reconnect, understand each other better and re-create those broken links will give you a good starting point. Facilitation can help with this – rather than bringing people together and hoping they figure things out on their own! Even the smallest amount of background nudging can get those relationships growing once again.
Many teams have now embraced remote working with employees scattered around the globe, so consider who can you bring together and how (even if this is online). And if you can’t all get together, what other ways of involving team members are there? Collaboration on a shared space such as a digital whiteboard may be something to kick start the conversation. Maybe a series of smaller workshops or meetings where some people feed in when together and others contribute before or after.
Your team relationships are intrinsically linked to your purpose, your values, and your goals. Consider what your team challenges are together and work to discover how you might collaborate to address these.
Finally, work together to define your new norms and ways of working. What does the workplace look like now and what do you need to put in place to ensure those relationships continue to grow and stay strong? Spending time thinking about this together acknowledges that you are taking this on board and allows this to be shaped by those that are living those norms day to day.
Articulate those norms, write them down and make sure they are seen. People need something to anchor themselves when they are unsure. When things have been thrown around and are starting to settle down, bringing some key points together can really help guide those relationships as they develop and flourish.