Why we all miss ‘the office’: Changing workplace relationships

As we dive deeper into remote work in this pandemic, employees are finding themselves increasingly distanced from their colleagues

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The office culture in India has always been about developing warm and rich interpersonal relationships among individuals. Offices across the country are alive with the spark of informal conversations amongst employees on varied topics, during the breaks. Like many other luxuries, the pandemic has taken away this spark from our lives as well. The feeling of comfort derived from the friendly exchanges with colleagues is felt less nowadays. The concept of office meets is blurring in the new work culture.

Saba Adil

“More focus is required on enabling people to build social capital, because a lot of work flows from these relationships.”

A new trend of sorts is noticeable. Conversations and communication with colleagues while working from home are mostly transactional. This means, our conversations lack any sort of informal element in them. Talks mostly revolve around work and getting things done. The focus has shifted to performance and delivery rather than knowing the person who is providing the results.

Everyone needs positive reinforcement to perform well at work. Most of the time, this come from the chats and conversations that we used to indulge in at the office. Due to the work-from-home culture prevalent now, people may not be able to make friends at work anymore.

Sriharsha Achar

“There needs to be cognizance of the fact that the culture of work has now changed.”

 

 

The new joinees who began their role in an organisation by working from home, will definitely find it tough to build relationships. After all, they haven’t really had the opportunity to meet their colleagues. Employees who were thrust into this new form of work a few months after joining, will also struggle to sustain the rapport they had begun to build with their peers. Many times people start developing affection for their place of work because of the people around them. This is another reason why some of us manage to make lifelong friendships with our colleagues.

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Suchismita Burman

“Organisations will need to enable people to build on relationships so that they do not become transactional, or fall apart.”

 

The few professionals commuting to office are also impacted. New norms of social and physical distancing have made it difficult to have animated conversations as we used to in the past.

Lack of informal conversations is a sign of the times, agree HR pundits.

Suchismita Burman, CHRO, ITC Infotech, adds another dimension to the discussion. She points out that a consequence of the times is that existing relationships are going to be tested far more today than they were before.

This is because people will naturally want to fall back on some kind of familiarity in these uncertain times. Therefore, if, for instance, two colleagues were good friends at office, they will make it their mission to strengthen that relationship and hold on to it. Relationships in these times can lean either way. Moreover, employees will reach out more towards those colleagues who can give them a positive vibe and point them in the right direction.

However, organisations will still need to play a role in helping foster relationships at work. “Organisations will need to enable people to build on relationships so that they do not become transactional or fall apart,” says Burman.

So how does this happen?

First, there has to be awareness about the issue in general. Sriharsha Achar, HR specialist, says, “There needs to be cognizance of the fact that the culture of work has now changed.”

Many of us may not be aware of this culture of isolation seeping in, until somebody points it out. Burman adds that people have to be made aware of the situation and the fallouts of not acting on it.

Saba Adil, CPO, Raheja QBE General Insurance, points out that just like sales people had to learn how to work through a virtual medium, employees are also new to these settings and will have to be taught the art of having virtual conversations. “More focus is required on enabling people to build social capital, because a lot of work flows from these relationships,” explains Adil.

The trick here is to start a conversation and make sure that it is sustained. Adil shares that she encourages her employees to call up their colleagues often — as many times as possible — rather than sending out e-mails. Calling another person up and talking for a few minutes will at least get a conversation going.

Another way is to enable people to come together on any platform and encourage informal conversations. Achar suggests having weekly sessions with small groups, where nobody talks about work.

Another area organisations can focus on is, changing the way conversations start. Rather than getting straight to a work-related topic, the focus for the first minute should be on the person at the other end, on how she/he has been faring so far. However, there can be no formal guideline to be followed in this regard. Burman advises that such conversations must flow from the top.

The change has to come from the managers themselves so that the pattern seeps down to their team members as well. “The more consistently such conversations happen, the more people will start noticing and adapting,” points out Burman.

Over time, we are realising the kind of luxuries that pre-COVID workspaces provided us. Fostering good relationships within the workplace was one of the key drivers of cohesion among co-workers. We may also begin to notice many inconsistencies in the new work culture. Three months into work from home, organisations may not have all the answers to deal with the changes in this new environment. However, we are certainly at the right point to work our way towards solutions.

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