People go to work because they have bills to pay. But for many employees, their job is also where they form deep connections with the work and their co-workers.
“Work is about a whole lot more than a paycheck for employees,” Cultivayo CEO Jason Lauritsen shared during his Betterworks webinar, “Why Your Employees Keep Breaking Up With You — and How to Stop It.” “In fact, I would argue that work is a relationship.”
We’ve traditionally treated work as a contract, Lauritsen said, with managers only really paying attention to employees when they fail to deliver. But that’s not how employees perceive things.
“Whether we are showing up that way or not, it’s a relationship for the employee,” Lauritsen said. “If we want our people to stop breaking up with us and moving on, then we’ve got to start doing a much better job of treating work like a relationship.”
How can organizations help managers implement this approach in the flow of work? Lauritsen laid out six components of a healthy relationship and how to incorporate those elements into your day-to-day work.
Traditional performance management tells us to spend our time with high and low performers. Meanwhile, most employees who fall in the middle rarely feel acknowledged. “They meet expectations, doing exactly what they’re paid to do. And then they log off, and they feel like nobody even noticed they were there,” Lauritsen said. “This day-to-day reality is crushing.”
To show appreciation to the entire workforce, especially those who have traditionally been neglected, “we have to be in the business of creating more positive moments,” Lauritsen said. You don’t have to invest in big gestures to make a big difference. Something as simple as giving someone a high-five can be meaningful and show recognition of that person’s effort. The goal is to show people that you see and value them.
Add time for shoutouts during meetings to incorporate recognition at the team level. Having leaders recognize employees and employees recognize each other can drive greater feelings of appreciation.
Build a culture of acceptance
You can be yourself around your best friends because you know they accept you for who you are. “If we are to create a work experience that feels like a really healthy relationship … we have to create an experience where people feel as if they are welcomed — that they belong — for who they really are,” Lauritsen said. The point of relationships is to feel connected.
Finding commonalities — or overlap — between individuals in the workplace is the first step. “Overlap is what we need in a relationship for us to feel like we really belong,” Lauritsen said.
Employers can create overlap among employees by facilitating dialogue around shared experiences and interests.
One of the benefits of the pandemic, Lauritsen said, is being able to see employees in their home environments: their pets, their hobbies, and other features that created an overlap. Meetings offer an excellent opportunity to help people get to know each other better. Consider asking a “question of the day” unrelated to work, for instance.
Communicate with clarity
Has your boss ever called for a meeting at the end of the day? Has your child’s school asked you to call back when you could? Your first thought was probably that there’s trouble brewing. Messages with no context typically take us to a negative place.
“When in doubt, we assume the worst,” Lauritsen said. “Because we assume the worst, uncertainty can kill relationships.”
The goal of good communication is to reduce uncertainty. “How do we create greater clarity for our employees about all of the aspects of their experience?” Lauritsen said. “How do we create a mechanism so that, if they are not clear, they know how to get clarity?”
The most crucial step toward creating greater clarity is to build a habit of asking yourself, “How can I reduce the amount of uncertainty that my employees are dealing with today?”
Lauritsen suggests managers schedule regular one-on-ones to promote clear communications.
Employees need to feel supported by their employers and their colleagues. “When we feel like we have support in a relationship of any kind, that feels good,” Lauritsen said. “When we feel unsupported, that’s when we break up, that’s when we leave.”
Being supportive isn’t necessarily easy to do. “Oftentimes, we overestimate how supportive we are,” Lauritsen said. We tend to be judgmental and make assumptions about someone’s intentions or work ethic. But when someone is struggling, they need help, not judgment.
It should be easy for employees to ask for and find help, Lauritsen says. Because we’re not all naturally tuned in to being supportive, formal mechanisms and channels can make it easier for employees to raise concerns and ask for help. Tools like Betterworks empower employees with the opportunity to flag problems in real-time. And with these incidents recorded in the software, managers and employees can address issues in upcoming check-ins.
Reinforce your commitment
Commitment is just as important in work relationships as in personal relationships. There are two types of commitment, Lauritsen said.
The first, reciprocity, refers to mutual commitment and shared accountability. But that accountability sometimes is one way.
“We do a pretty good job of making sure employees understand what we expect of them, but I don’t think it’s always so clear what they should expect of us and how they should hold us accountable,” Lauritsen said. Many employees can only hold employers accountable by leaving the company.
The second piece of commitment is to repair. When we make mistakes, we have to learn to prioritize the relationship. That means we must get to that repair stage quickly by apologizing or forgiving quickly and moving on.
“Structurally, if you want to foster commitment, to make work feel more like a relationship, think about how to use more team-based goals and objectives,” Lauritsen said. Alignment between employees’ goals can help them see that they’re working together toward a shared objective, not in competition with each other.
Give employees the gift of time
How do you know someone loves you? Lauritsen once posed this question to his daughter when she was seven years old. Her response: They spend time together. Time is the currency of relationships, personal and professional.
“If you want to know what somebody values, look at how they spend their time,” Lauritsen said.
Time helps build positive work relationships in two ways: Putting time into our relationships and giving back time to employees. “If we want to keep people, if we want people to stop breaking up with us and going in search of better relationships, then we have got to make connection part of the work,” Lauritsen said. He suggests that companies create space — whether virtually or in-person — to connect.
Make connection part of the work because, in many ways, making that connection is the work.
Bring everything together through check-ins
Check-ins are the single most important tool for reinforcing positive relationships in the workplace.
“A well-executed check-in conversation is how you have the conversation that matters with the people that matter,” Lauritsen said.
What goes into a well-executed check-in conversation? Start with a question that elicits a meaningful response. Don’t just ask, “How are you?” Lauritsen said. Get specific by asking how someone is doing on a scale of 1-10. Ask a follow-up question based on their response. Listen to what’s being said and to what’s not being said.
Celebrate what’s going well, Lauritsen said, and demonstrate support and encouragement for what’s not — and ask how you can help.
When we teach managers and leaders how to do check-ins properly, they can get to the heart of what matters.
Treating work like a relationship can be transformative for the organization. “The days of treating [work] like a contract are over and gone,” Lauritsen said. “Our employees are saying, ‘I demand more. I demand better. And if you’re not going treat me better, I will go find somebody that will.’”
Prioritize the six elements of a healthy relationship in your workplace to make work better for everyone.