Interpersonal relationships at work—here, there, and everywhere
Engagement 4 minute read

Interpersonal relationships at work—here, there, and everywhere

Rise | February 11, 2021

Managing interpersonal relationships at work can be tricky for both the employee and employer. Can workplace relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional) survive the distance of remote work?

Love is in the air. Or the airwaves. Or maybe not at all?

Dispersed teams have changed the dynamic of interpersonal relationships at work. 

The workplace is a great place to meet people who are like-minded and share similar interests, attitudes, and goals. This like-mindedness can lead to many things: rewarding professional relationships, friendships, rivalries, and yes, even romances. 

Managing these various relationships, particularly when there’s conflict, falls under HR’s responsibility. However, as HR Grapevine points out, remote work has made many HR managers ask if they’ve “ever really been able to track what staff are up to”.

How should employers handle these complex interpersonal relationships at work, when work isn’t necessarily happening in a central workplace?

First things first: the romantic relationship. In the past, workplace romances were seen as taboo, if not directly against the rules, but they’ve become more commonplace in recent years.

As many as 57% of employees have admitted to some type of office romance, regardless of whether or not it was permitted. However, according to Canadian HR Law, “there is no legal basis upon which an employer can impose a rule, across the board, to control interpersonal relationships”.

If a company does attempt to enforce such a policy, it will only cause employees to be resentful and skeptical of management. Your policy should work to ensure that all employees are treated equitably, and that there are procedures in place should a relationship turn sour. It’s particularly important that dispersed teams are made aware of which behaviours are appropriate and which are not acceptable, since managers aren’t able to closely monitor employees anymore.

It’s up to the organization to trust that their employees can minimize the disruptive impacts of their work relationships, whatever the context. According to HR Reporter:

“The most helpful tool to do this is to create and implement an effective workplace policy to address relationships and the issues that can arise. This may not necessarily need to be specific to workplace romantic relationships, but should certainly be in place to address conflicts of interest. Employees should be required to disclose potential conflicts, including romantic relationships”.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but interpersonal relationships at work are often based on proximity. You become close to the people you see everyday. 

With communication more challenging and the current COVID-19 restrictions preventing people from getting together outside of work hours, relationships aren’t forming organically anymore, and as one expert predicts “the office affair is dead”.

A recent piece in The Atlantic discussed workplace friendships, and how a lot of the joy that people feel in their jobs is because of the relationships they have with their coworkers. They write that being “[d]eprived of shared spaces and rituals, colleagues now have to be proactive to maintain relationships that once thrived on convenience”.

Management and HR can help by creating opportunities for togetherness, such as virtual team-building activities or even just encouraging chit-chat before meetings start. 

Conflict resolution is a big part of HR’s role, but managing interpersonal relationships at work is more challenging virtually. 

One of the key factors to ensuring peaceful working relationships is checking in with your employees regularly. In an office setting, people are able to bring up an issue in a meeting or by popping into their manager’s office. Online, small problems may be left to fester if there are no regular check-ins. Harvard Business Review writes that it’s important that employees are encouraged to “nip problems in the bud by raising an issue whenever it first arises”.

Team members should also be reminded to be mindful of their tone while communicating online, as tone can often be lost or taken the wrong way in writing, leading to miscommunications. 

In the case of a full blown dispute, management should set up 1:1 virtual meetings with each person involved, and then a group meeting to resolve the issue—much inthe same way as they might in-person. 

Virtually managing interpersonal relationships at work requires a bit more effort and advanced planning. Leaders need to be proactive and ensure the team members are treating each other kindly and with respect. 

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