How to focus on building community in the workplace
Engagement 4 minute read

How to focus on building community in the workplace

Megan Orr | October 19, 2021

Building community in the workplace can be an essential asset in attracting and retaining employees. However, there’s a fine line between supporting employees/encouraging collaboration and asking too much of your employees in the name of “being like a family”.

Building community in the workplace is at the forefront of many employers' minds as they continue to navigate the pandemic and the transition to remote/hybrid work environments. Community is something that needs to be nurtured, and it’s difficult to force. Employees are increasingly wary of organizations that preach tight-knit relationships—and for good reason. 

Ask a Manager’s Alison Green spoke in a New York Times article about how the phrase “we’re like a family here” is often a sign of a dysfunctional workplace. Alison says that saying ‘we’re like a family’ “often means that boundaries get violated and people are expected to show inappropriate amounts of commitment and loyalty, even when it’s not in their self-interest”.

Popular media, however, often promotes the coworkers-as-family trope. From The Office gang dancing down the aisle at Jim and Pam’s wedding to any cop or medical drama where coworkers are always inexplicably intimately involved in each other’s personal lives, there are countless examples on any streaming service or cable network. In fact, you might have grown up thinking that your future coworkers were going to be like your family—but that shouldn’t be the norm.

Building community in the workplace means that not only do you have support for work projects but also a support network for when your personal life does bleed into your professional life. However, the phrase “we’re like a family” implies a sense of loyalty—and more than that, obligation to the job

The subtext of ‘We’re like a family’ is don’t you want to stay late, work weekends, go above and beyond, insert any task above duties as described, to make your family happy? And although, as Alison Green puts it, “employers aren’t out there rubbing their hands together and cackling evilly about how they’ll pull one over on people”, this coworkers-as-family attitude can still be harmful for both the employees and the employer. 

Organizations should focus instead on building community in the workplace. 

The difference between community and family might seem like semantics, but there’s actually an important distinction. While family can mean different things to different people, its literal definition is “a group of people who are related to each other”. Community, on the other hand, is defined as a group of people either living in close proximity to one another or people who share similar interests. 

Naturally, the workplace fits the definition of community, where people are in close proximity and share the same interests (their work). Forbes writes that building community in the workplace is important because it means employees “don’t wait for someone else to do things” but rather feel a sense of responsibility and take action, helping decrease the burden on leaders when it comes to generating ideas. 

Here are some ways that you can focus on building community in the workplace:

  • Decrease competition. Offer employees clear career progression options rather than having people compete for one role. This will help to create a more supportive work environment.
  • Ask for input. When making decisions, big or small, ask for input from a wide range of people across your organization. 
  • Management buy-in. Building community in the workplace starts with your management team being invested in your company mission and supporting employees. The Harvard Business Review refers to this kind of community-based management as “just enough leadership”, or “leadership that intervenes when appropriate while encouraging people in the organization to get on with things”.
  • Host team-building events. Whether it’s a lunch-and-learn, a casual happy hour, or a big holiday party, team-building is an important part of building community in the workplace. 

Generally, creating a strong workplace community means focusing on company culture and leading by example. Employees will be excited to be a part of your community if you’re excited to be a part of it too.

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