Working in a professional environment, particularly any environment that requires any level of teamwork or collaboration, offers a pretty challenging balancing act for everyone involved.
On one hand, you need to establish good relationships with your coworkers. Having good relationships with the people you're working with when you're going to need to rely on them sometimes is absolutely vital. If you have good relationships with your coworkers, not only will the time spent with them be more enjoyable, they're also more likely to provide useful help when you need it. They may even help you find other work in the future.
On the other hand, you also have a lot of work responsibilities on your plate, and the more time you spend on anything at work outside of those work responsibilities means either more time you're going to spend at work period or less you're going to get done, which isn't exactly going to make your boss happy. In order to keep your job, you have to be productive in your own tasks.
Those two forces work against each other because they're often demanding the same pool of hours. Building good workplace relationships takes time, but so do your work tasks, and simply adding hours onto your workday isn't exactly appealing to anyone.
How does an employee find a healthy balance between the two?
I spent years working in an office environment with a small team and this issue was a big one. We wanted to have a strong team with good relationships, but at the same time, we had a constant stream of tasks to take care of. Once the team was firmly established, our team had zero turnover over five years, only growing in size during those years, and we received high marks on every project review. When I left, it was honestly the people that I missed the most.
How did we make that balance work for us? With 10 key strategies for maintaining good workplace relationships while getting the job done.
1. Establish clear, uninterrupted "focused work" periods, and do truly focused work during those periods.
If there's one tip I can suggest for balancing individual and team demands at work, it's this one. Simply establish some periods at work where you drill down into your most difficult tasks without interruption or distraction.
In our office environment, we usually devoted a large block of time each morning to those kinds of tasks. From about 8 a.m. to noon each day, excluding any days with meetings, we were all focused on getting through our individual tasks. We'd literally each put on headphones, stick a "do not disturb" note on our cubicle or office door, and get down to business for several hours.
During those periods, we aimed to minimize distraction, both for ourselves and for others nearby. Phones were turned off or set to go directly to voicemail. Music was played through headphones. Email programs were turned off, only to be checked perhaps once an hour to make sure nothing extremely urgent was happening.
If you're in an office where different people have different routines, just simply stick a note upon your cubicle that says "Focusing on some tasks; come back at X:XX" that identifies when you're going to be done. Close all programs that might distract you, turn off your cell phone and bear down on meaningful deep work.
This can work even in non-office environments. Just tell your coworkers that you're going to bear down on a certain task until it's done and to just let you go at it so that it's done. Save socializing and disruption until you're done with it.
2. Be proactive when your coworkers are struggling.
Pay attention to the coworkers you have that you interact with the most and simply look for signs that they might be struggling. Does everyone seem healthy and happy? Does anyone seem like they're not feeling well? Struggling with overwork? Sick?
Just take a minute once or twice a day and consider each of them. If they're doing good, good. If it seems like something's off, just head over and make sure they're doing OK. Ask them if they're feeling OK, if they've got too much on their plate or if they're struggling with something.
Even if they don't tell you anything, that's OK — simply asking about it indicates that you care about them and are paying attention to them, which is often more than enough. Sometimes, people will dump a lot on you, and if that's the case, just follow strategy No. 10.
Most importantly, if they're struggling with something you can trivially fix, do so. If you have someone in your workplace struggling with something that you can fix or at least help in a couple of minutes, just fix it without question. Jump in, do it, and move on. Save hesitance and saying "no" for major things. The truth is, stepping up and helping with little things often makes a huge difference for people and it will virtually always make that relationship a stronger and more positive one, which is incredibly valuable when you need that help.
3. When conversing about work, consciously focus on shared challenges and shared interests rather than your personal ones.
Here's the truth: your coworkers largely don't care about the specifics of the things you're dealing with. The polite ones will definitely listen and empathize, but unless your relationship is deep and your issues are far out of the ordinary, it's not going to have a deep impact on them.
Recognize that and focus your talk on things that might have an overlapping concern. Workplace issues that you're both dealing with can be a good place to start, but stick to more positive things and do all you can to avoid "backstabbing" and gossip. You can also throw out feelers to get a sense of what interests you share with coworkers because finding things you mutually care about gives you something to converse and connect over.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever mention your life or your individual concerns, but save it for the exceptional things. You're much more likely to garner interest and connection if you don't devote time and energy to sharing ordinary things and instead save it for when you have exceptional things to share, good and bad.
Our office conversations thrived because we found things that many of us had in common and talked about those a lot, and we tried to find at least one or two areas that would include everyone. Outside of professional issues in our field, our conversations centered around local politics, country and Americana music, video games, tabletop games, basketball, cooking, and literature. Literally everyone in our office had at least some significant interest in at least two of those areas, so it was easy for everyone to converse and there was a range of topics.
4. Greet your coworkers when you see them.
This is such a simple step, but it makes an enormous difference. If you see a coworker for the first time in a day, particularly near the start of the day, just say hello or at least give them an affirmative nod of the head if you're already focused on something.
It's such a simple gesture, something that takes less than a second but manages to make people feel acknowledged and welcome, yet I've seen workplaces where this just doesn't happen.
Just make this into a habit. It'll build relationships and camaraderie with almost no effort at all.
5. Ask for help when you're struggling, but do it the right way.
The longest-tenured member of my team and I were both "stiff upper lip" kind of people. We preferred to figure out problems on our own and would rarely ask for help. When we did ask each other for help, the first question we'd always ask each other is, "What have you tried?" Over time, it became an expectation that the other person would have at least a couple of good answers for this.
If you need help, take it upon yourself to answer the "what have you tried?" question before asking. Try something. Go use Google and see if you can figure out some approaches. Read through any documentation you might have. Do those things with genuine effort to try to figure things out on your own. Even if those don't contain any answer, the simple fact that you at least looked for answers is often enough.
Then, when you ask for help, you can spell out a few things you've already done without having to ask, and when you do that, people are much more likely to help you. Why? First, they know you've already tried a few obvious things, so those ideas can be skipped, but also, and perhaps more importantly, you're showing that you've already put in some work yourself. People appreciate effort.
Don't hesitate to ask people for help when you're struggling, but make at least some degree of real effort to solve the problem yourself before asking. You'll find that if you do this, people will gladly help, and in doing so you'll likely cement your relationship with them while also solving a problem.
6. Whenever you present your work, dish out lots of credit to your coworkers and make their contributions sound as big as reasonable.
If you ever have to present your work, either in a formal presentation with slides or by simply talking about it in a meeting, dole out as much credit as you can to the other people on your team and anyone else that helped produce a positive result.
Here's why: when you're presenting something or answering questions, the assumption is already there that you've contributed. Sharing credit not only doesn't eliminate that assumption, but it also makes you appear humble and also gives some positive shine to others.
What do you do if the question is negative or you're presenting a bad report? In those situations, put the responsibility straight on yourself. Don't dish it off to coworkers, even if they're not doing things well. Again, the person asking the questions likely already knows that you're not fully to blame, so tossing other coworkers under the bus usually just looks like you're willing to trash the team to save your own neck - not a good look. Answer truthfully if people ask pointed questions, of course, but lay off the blame game otherwise.
Make this your normal mode of operation and you'll find that others in the workplace appreciate you and trust you more, including your supervisors. Doing this requires no additional effort, but it certainly builds and strengthens relationships and respect.
7. Never eat alone.
If you're going to eat lunch at work, don't eat alone. Don't sit at your desk staring at a screen or looking at your phone and especially don't go out for lunch by yourself. Rather, use the distraction that a meal provides as an opportunity to build relationships with people and collaboratively solve problems.
This doesn't mean you have to go out for lunch every day. Bring your lunch from home sometimes (or most of the time) and eat with others who stick around the office. Look for other "brown baggers" and invite them to eat with you in a break room or even together in a cubicle or office if necessary.
The reason is that you're not going to be fully productive while engaged in the act of eating. You can't fully use your hands, your food is absorbing at least a little attention, and you probably can't carry on a good phone conversation either. It's just a great situation to build those workplace relationships without any real cost in terms of actual work productivity.
8. Keep track of major days for your coworkers.
This was a trick I learned from someone I respected deeply. She told me that when someone new joined her team, she'd find out their birthday and add it to her calendar. Then, as she got to know them, she figured out something that they enjoyed — coffee, chocolate, beef jerky or something like that, usually an edible item. She'd add that to that calendar entry. Then, she'd have that calendar entry set off an alert a few days in advance, and she'd pick up a small item along the lines of what they liked and pair it with a blank greeting card. On that card, in her own handwriting, she'd write "Happy birthday! So glad to have you around!" or something like that, sign it and stick it on their desk when they weren't there along with the small item.
She didn't make their birthday a big event of any kind. She played it low key, because she knew that some people didn't want to be noticed in that way.
I started doing this with people I served with and I was astounded as to how much impact it made on them. It was so easy to do it, too, but it really connected with all kinds of people. Just make a list of the people you work most closely with, add their birthdays to Google Calendar (and have it email you a few days in advance), and when you figure out something small they like, add it to that appointment so you're reminded. It costs maybe $5 or $10, but it can have an extremely positive impact on the recipient.
9. Save trivial tasks for "multitasking" sessions.
As I mentioned earlier, we usually had blocks of "focused work" in the mornings. In the afternoons, however, we did things much differently. Those were times for "busy work" — smaller, less important tasks that could easily be interrupted and could even be multitasked.
I'd use afternoons for going through email, improving documentation, getting things set up for tomorrow morning's focused work session, sending out any emails that needed to be sent, and so on. It was also time that I'd use to take care of things for coworkers and also have conversations about ongoing projects.
A lot of those things could easily be multitasked. I could fire off several emails, do some documentation while waiting for responses, and deal with them as they came in. I could stop any of that to have a chat with a coworker as needed, too.
By separating the "focus" work from the more trivial "multitasking" work, I made it so that I could easily be interrupted during part of the workday without really interrupting any major tasks. This made interruptions and conversations with coworkers and helping people with other problems much less of a hassle.
10. Listen, keep track of what they tell you and pay it forward.
If you want to build a positive relationship with someone, the single most effective thing you can do is listen to them. When they're talking, shut your mouth and put your focus on what they're saying, not your own internal monologue. Ask questions and really dig in so that you understand what they're saying.
Not only will people feel appreciated by this, but you'll also learn a lot from doing so. You'll learn what their concerns are and what's important to them, and that's incredibly valuable.
Perhaps even more important, you'll sometimes pick up on information or concerns that you can easily fix. Remember, as I noted earlier, if there's something helpful you can do in just a few minutes, just do it. You can often learn about really helpful things just by listening.
I'll give you a perfect example of this. Once, I had a coworker who seemed to have constant headaches. He'd come in early in the day seeming fine, but by the early afternoon, his head would be pounding. He would take several ibuprofen just to get through the day.
I didn't know about this until he told me about it and, after asking some questions, I ended up figuring out the culprit. Another worker at a desk next to his would turn on a lamp when she arrived usually around 9:30, after the other worker had been there for a while. Lo and behold, his headache would start kicking in mid-morning. The bulb in that lamp emitted a really high pitched sound. I could hear it, but it didn't give me a headache; no one else seemed to be able to hear it at all. Was it causing his headache?
I went and asked the janitor for a replacement bulb for the lamp and swapped them out myself when she wasn't around. The new bulb didn't make a peep and his headache went away.
I figured this out by just listening to him for a bit and asking a few questions, rather than zoning him out. Not only did he feel like I really cared about him, I made his life better and made him more productive and he was much more open to helping me out in the future.
Listen. Pay attention. Follow up.
Don't sweat the small stuff.
Every office is different. Sometimes, these steps will make a huge difference, causing you to be far more productive without hurting relationships, or building up your relationships with surprisingly little effort. Sometimes, they won't move the needle at all. These are simply steps that worked well for me in terms of achieving a good balance, or things I observed others doing that seemed to help.
That's OK. Don't sweat it. In fact, don't sweat any of the small stuff. Just remember that there's a lot of value in getting your work done efficiently and a lot of value in maintaining great relationships with everyone at work, and by using some smarts, you can pull off both.