In Praise of Being Personal at Work

By David Hassell, CEO of 15Five

Do you shy away from personal conversations with your team at the office? Do you avoid interacting with your employees outside of the office?

If so, you might be missing valuable opportunities to increase employee engagement. While some conversations aren’t appropriate for the office, research shows that taking the time to connect with your team on a personal level increases job satisfaction and results in more engaged and productive employees.

So — when was the last time you talked to your team?

The Power of Personal

Anne Kreamer spent several years studying emotion in American workplaces for her book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace. Kreamer argues that the rules of the game are evolving beyond the expectation that employees check their personal lives at the door, and that this shift has been largely fueled by the round-the-clock availability that technology has enabled.

Kreamer’s research is indicative of a new way of thinking about the place of personal relationships in the workplace, a change that I believe is for the better. The reality is that we cannot — and should not — completely separate our personal and professional lives. Our basic human desires for connection, recognition and community do not disappear when we walk into work. In fact, acknowledging the humanity of staff can lead to a more engaged workforce. As management consultant Victor Lipman explains in Forbes, when employees feel as though their managers value their time and energy, they are more likely to perform (even in less than ideal work environments).

Making Time for Connection

As Meghan Biro writes for Forbes, “For many employees, workgroup relationships and relationships between managers and workers drive engagement and loyalty more effectively than foosball machines, logo T-shirts, and Thirsty Thursday gatherings.” But the question that many managers and executives struggle with is how do we go about creating these relationships in the first place. With already over-burdened schedules, it can be difficult for managers to find the time to foster these personal relationship with their employees.

The good news is that creating personal connections doesn’t require you to have hour-long conversations with each of your team members. It can be as simple as sending an email. Here are a few examples of ways that managers can reach out and create personal bonds with their teams:

Take an occasional coffee break together

The next time you are taking a walk down the street to grab a coffee, consider inviting one of your team members to come along with you. It is a simple way to express to your team that they are valued and appreciated. Interacting outside of the office (even if it is just down the street), provides a great opportunity to have an open, honest conversation with employees, away from the pressures of the office.

Create space for personal stories

Rob Emrich starts every day with his team at Pae Dae with a group huddle. After they are done discussing the work day ahead, each team member is invited to share one positive personal event from the day before. Rituals like the one at Pae Dae are important because they create a space for employees to share bits of their personal life in a safe and comfortable way, without fear of being labelled as ‘unprofessional’. Inviting your team to share information about their personal joys and challenges creates a sense of community among team members that drives engagement and job satisfaction.

Inject some ‘personal’ into the every day

A great way to show employees that you care is to send them the occasional brief email regarding their personal activities that are public knowledge at the office. For example, the afternoon before a team member departs on vacation, sending a one-line email saying ‘I hope you enjoy Florida, enjoy your well-deserved break!’ is a wildly simple yet effective way of nurturing your relationship. Conversely, when an employee is experiencing personal challenges (ie. illness in the family), sending a quick note reminding them that their team is there for them can make all the difference.

Drawing the Line

While taking the time to make personal connections is important, and creating a space where employees feel comfortable discussing personal matters that impact their work is valuable — it is essential that managers put in place relationship boundaries. Clearly defined boundaries put your team at ease by making it clear the type of personal sharing that is (and that isn’t) encouraged in the workplace.

From boundaries designed to protect your time, to boundaries designed to preserve the integrity of a manager-employee relationship, the important thing is to clearly define and express the boundaries, and follow through consistently.

If you are concerned that your boundary-setting might be perceived negatively, take the time to explain to them the reasons why you are setting the boundaries, and encourage an open dialogue around the subject. Finally, be sure to role model these boundaries at all times. For example, if you have told your team that certain subjects are not appropriate for the office, be sure to abide by your own rules.

As we move away from the work-life separation favored by the boomer generation to a culture of work-life integration, we need to revisit the unspoken rules of the workplace in order to make them relevant for this new age.

While each organization will have it’s own sweet spot when it comes to balancing the personal and the professional, making even a small effort everyday to connect with your employees will go a long way towards establishing trust, and will ultimately make the workplace a more comfortable and inviting environment for everyone.

Do you feel that personal conversations in the workplace are appropriate?

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