January 25, 2024

Three Mindset Shifts to Help Your Work Connections Thrive

Three spirited women join forces to overthrow their lazy, dishonest and sexist boss and fundamentally transform their workplace. They take charge of the office, and implement flexible hours, an in-office daycare center, equal pay for men and women, and a job-sharing program for employees to work part-time. The results of their efforts emerge quickly: a 20% increase in productivity across the board.

Sound too good to be true? It is. It’s the plot of the iconic movie, 9 to 5, complete with a catchy song and star-studded cast: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. And 44 years later, the movie’s message is alarmingly relevant. Although the film shines a slapstick light on the plight of 1980s working women, it offers an even more lasting message. The three women, bolstered by their shared experience and an outsized amount of moxie, collaborate to permanently change their situation. This is not only a storybook ending, but a powerful, often neglected, lesson in workplace friendship and connection. We need to give it a second look.

Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda in 2000

We've just come off a wild year marked by political polarization, war, lingering effects of a global pandemic, and technological changes that spark every response from unbridled enthusiasm to abject fear. And this year—an election year— promises to be worse. Workplaces are plagued by growing levels of employee unhappiness, vulnerable to the epidemic of loneliness, isolation and burnout spreading across the globe. It's no wonder we feel alone when every conversation holds the risk of devolving into disagreement or even rancor.

But keeping to yourself is the worst thing you can do. We are hardwired to need the emotional and social support that come from human connection. The research is clear and extensive: the ability to learn and grow, perform well and be satisfied in your job are strongly linked to the quality of your relationships at work. So is your physical and emotional wellbeing. Although long-time Gallup research emphasizes the importance of having a best friend at work, in 2022, only 21% of employed adults had such a friend. The workplace is full of social roadblocks; layoff fears, return-to-office conflicts, and economic uncertainty make it feel safer to keep your head down. But if everyone is hunkered down, how can you build the relationships that boost your happiness and your performance? Here are three mindset shifts to help deepen your connections at work.

  1. Don't Be A Stranger

    The Harvard Study on Adult Development is the longest running study on human life and development. Started in 1938, the research included 724 adolescent boys, expanding to their spouses, children, and grandchildren. Through interviews and questionnaires, they gathered data on relationships, work histories, family structures, hobbies and perspectives. Across all these areas, one conclusion rises far above any other: good relationships are the key to a happy and healthy life. But we have to be intentional about making and maintaining them.

    Interestingly, good relationships don’t have to be long or deep. In fact, we tend to underestimate the degree of happiness and fulfillment we get from short interactions with people we don’t know. Research tells us that we are remarkably bad at predicting what we will enjoy more: talking to a stranger or keeping to ourselves. Hint: it's the former, yet we are often reluctant to do it. Short episodic connections with strangers enhance trust, increase belonging and boost health. And they’re good for communities too—the more people talk to each other, the safer and happier they are. The lesson for work? Start with small talk. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. Say hello in the elevator, or shoot the breeze while you wait for a virtual meeting to start. You never know when a casual encounter becomes the foundation of a longer-term friendship.
  2. Don't Let Technology Isolate You

    Writer and computer science professor, Cal Newport, links growing unhappiness and workplace fatigue to the plethora of digital tools we now use to talk to each other. Whether it’s email, Slack, social media or text, there’s always something dinging, flashing or waiting for your attention. And it’s increasingly clear that these tools do not prevent isolation and loneliness - you can easily feel alone as the barrage of disembodied words come flooding in. But it’s naive to think these channels will go away, or that new ones won’t add to the din. A recent Forbes study found that workers use digital communication tools for up to 20 hours of every work week.

    Digital channels can be maddening, but they have freed us in remarkable ways—to work remotely and stay connected with colleagues, even during the most locked down days of the pandemic. They boost the efficacy of global teams who, prior to the explosion of Zoom and other video tools, got together once a year or less, budget permitting. Blaming the channels is like shooting the messenger. It’s not their existence that makes them challenging, but the lack of discipline around how we use them. Make these channels work for you to build the relationships you need. Use Zoom or Teams to schedule a coffee break with colleagues you don’t see often. Designate a “watercooler” channel in Slack to share non-work related items. And set ground rules for managing digital communication expectations: reasonable response times, blackout periods for deeper work, and channel preferences for different types of communication.
  3. Don't Ignore the Power of Work Friends

    Many workplaces with healthy cultures know the value of interpersonal relationships and make the time and space to nurture and develop them. But sadly, many do not. If you work for a company that has not seen the light, all is not lost. You can do a lot on your own. While the term “work spouse” is oddly gendered and confusing, the pretense is promising: a platonic relationship grounded in trust, respect, honesty, and loyalty. Find someone you respect, whose opinions you trust and with whom you can enjoy mutual advice and moral support.

    Or find more than one. We tend to think of an employee resource group as a DEI tool, but there are many ways to find affinities with others. Effective ERGs, with a strong strategy, have been shown to significantly increase inclusion, but also to deepen connection, increase leadership exposure and advance careers. Some organizations extend the traditional ERG to include young professionals and aspiring leaders. I’ve worked with companies with working parent or caregiver ERGs, where a common set of challenges transcends the more traditional categories of race or gender. The chance to spend time with similarly situated colleagues is priceless. Consider forming an ERG and inviting coworkers you don’t know. A shared experience brings you together, invites diverse perspectives (even in seemingly homogeneous groups) and offers unique opportunities for learning and mutual support. By gently softening the line between your work life and your personality, you increase the likelihood of finding that all-important best friend at work.

The crazy antics of 9 to 5 are clearly not the ideal handbook for workplace behavior. But the irrepressible spirit and strong friendship of three coworkers who work together to effect change is just the inspiration we need for today’s workplace. From their humor comes a trenchant lesson: your productivity, sense of belonging, happiness and wellbeing are highly dependent on the quality of your workplace relationships. More importantly, your ability to champion and effect change is markedly increased with partners and colleagues. Alone you are capable; aligned you are unstoppable. As we go from a statistically unhappy year to one that promises even more uncertainty, a stronger network of friends and connections is your not-so-secret power to make work happier.

First published on Forbes.com.

Image Credit:
Adobe and Wikipedia

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