Building A Culture of Relationships That Persist

What defines a healthy workplace relationship? What can be done to have better and stronger relationships?

Relationships — how deep they go?

Not so long ago, a friend of mine was getting married and I had the honor to be her man of honor. She is actually a colleague of mine (and a former teammate). I’ve known her for more than seven years — we go running together, we visit each other, we go on trips together, and we helped each other withstand some serious life crises. I absolutely didn’t take it for granted but I wasn't exactly surprised when she asked me to be her honor attendant.

Nevertheless, it got me wondering about relationships at work:

How often do people ask their co-workers for such personal favors?

How often people truly open up to their colleagues?

I’m all the more curious because many people I meet are reluctant to involve in any deeper camaraderie at work. At best, they go grab a beer with their peers but sometimes, not even that. And I don’t think it’s because they don’t like beer.

Au contraire, I think they’d often love to go out but the company culture doesn’t spawn the opportunities.

Are deeper friendships at work so unusual? Should I feel lucky?

Relationships that last

Let stick with the wedding theme for a bit. This past summer, I spent three wedding-y weekends in a row with my colleagues. Besides the mentioned wedding, I organized a bachelorette party and participated in another stag party. (Which would do for another article but unfortunately, I can’t share any details as I’m bound to secrecy. 😇)

My colleagues and I host and attend several events of this kind every year. Throughout time, we perfected the stag parties to the level where we stay together up to four days, often abroad, and typically spending a serious part of our paychecks. The preparations take weeks, the schedules are packed until the very last second.

That alone wouldn’t be so unique if those events weren’t attended by and organized for our friends who no longer work for our company.

How to recognize great relationships?

People spending their own resources, including the most precious one — time, indicate that they genuinely care about each other (not only about getting the work done).

It seems to me that the quality of relationships in a company is directly proportional to the time people spend together outside of work.

Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do people in your team care about the wellbeing of each other?
  • Do they go out after the working hours?
  • Do they form communities around shared values?
  • Do they mingle with their former colleagues?

Tip: A brief look at the off-topic channels in your company Slack can tell you more.

Why do I care about relationships?

Relationships are an inherent part of everything we do and everything we say. By communicating, we are building relationships. Even if we don’t immediately realize it, we maintain relationships with many people — our doctors, car mechanics, or postmen.

Of course, some relationships are more important than others. While you’ll probably won’t try to fix a relationship with a rude pizza guy who you’ll never see again, it’s worth considering nurturing and cherishing relationships with your colleagues whom you spend more than a third of your life with.

I am a human in the first place which makes my time on this planet limited, and I want to make maximum out of it. I want to do my job well and I want to love my job, neither of which would be possible if I had no real friends (=no one to rely on) at work.

And that’s basically what cultivating relationships is about — increasing trust, the sense of people being able to rely on each other.

Relationships are communicating vessels

I know people (and I bet you do too) who believe it’s possible to keep personal life apart from work life.

Sometimes, they like to call themselves “professionals”. I witnessed some extreme cases when they’d bitch you out in the office and then expect you to go grab a beer after work with them. This is no professionalism, this is pure psychopathy, pretense, and opportunism. These people basically want the best of the two worlds and are willing to sacrifice nothing, all the less their egos. They fear being vulnerable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to think that there can’t exist a power disparity between a supervisor and a subordinate. However, I believe that the least everyone can do is to try not to be a different person at work than they are <at home|in a pub|in a gym>. Honesty is the key.

ME = How I treat people at work + How I treat people at a party + How I treat people at <…>

Building a culture of healthy relationships

What I learned is that unlike the company strategy, culture is not something that can be easily pushed top-down. It can be promoted, advocated, encouraged but can hardly be pushed.

Don’t expect the culture to change unless you change yourself. You simply can’t command your teams to perform team-building activities and then not take part in them. Lead by example!

Some examples:

  • When I prepared the first team breakfast it kicked off a snowball effect of exchanging food-related courtesies which continues to this day.
  • If our CEO hasn’t been attending Trees for Bugs for 10 years we wouldn’t have planted more than 3k trees so far. In fact, the initiative would be long dead before we planted the first few hundreds.
  • If our offices weren’t dog-friendly, I doubt that one of our employees would now run her own animal shelter and that other employees would support her initiative and involve in various other charities.

Culture is very fragile — a loss of trust and respect are very difficult to restore. It’s essential to stay authentic and genuine. If you don’t mean it, don’t do it. Empty gestures will only harm the culture.

If we all understand this, we’ll be set up for much more fun and rich lives.

This is me. I found this two years old photo just recently and thought it fits here quite nicely :)

Disclaimer: I’m lucky to lead a small team of DevRel practitioners at Kentico, a company that honors the aforementioned values. This article expresses solely my personal opinion and was written in my spare time.

Dev @Microsoft. All posts at https://petrsvihlik.com/