After working in a variety of companies both small and large, I have learned how to spot the difference between committed employees who are in it for the long haul and temporary faces who will move on down the line. You can tell the "keepers" based upon how they get along with others in the office: They engage people in a professional and respectful manner that adheres to certain traits. This helps the business's bottom line, since positive employee interaction drives the organization.
Building employee morale has been a common theme among management as of late. Company socials and outings, promoting exercise through walk-a-thons or friendly weight-loss contests, and other mood-boosting strategies are fine (although I felt a mandatory high-school-style company rally at one business I worked was a bit much).
But fancy plans aren't always needed. Sometimes the simple approach is the best. So I've put together this list of 10 things I have found invaluable in maintaining positive relations at work based on the traits I referred to above. Best of all, these tips don't cost money!
1: Practice common courtesy
This one should be self-explanatory, but I live in New England, which can be known for standoffish attitudes. Look, there's nothing creepier than walking down the hall at work and greeting a coworker with a friendly "Hello" only to receive a stony stare in response (or no acknowledgment at all). I'm not saying you should throw confetti and hand out balloons, but a simple exchange of smiles and a "Hi" is the first step in forming a constructive workplace. Make eye contact and refer to people by name. This is the oil that keeps the engine of cooperation running smoothly. It doesn't mean you have to chat over coffee for an hour and it certainly doesn't mean you have to kiss anyone.
Furthermore, keep in mind office life is much like having roommates. Don't be the guy (or girl) who left the fish sandwich in the fridge for two weeks, or finished the last Keurig cup without opening another box. If your feet noticeably sweat, sandals at work may be a bad idea. And so forth.
2: Use effective communications
Learn who works best through email, phone, instant messaging, or personal visits and try to utilize these preferences when engaging your coworkers. Some people prefer email since they like to keep a written record of their actions or responses to questions (or they may be online late at night getting caught up). Others will value a phone call more since it's a quicker medium of communication.
I have found email is usually the standard. When it comes to a powerful email strategy, my four corners are:
- Always make sure the subject line is helpful (e.g., "question about expiration of paid time off" and not "question") and keep the email as concise and on-topic as possible.
- Leave people out of emails/meeting requests if they don't need to attend or be kept in the loop on the topic, so they won't see your emails as meaningless spam.
- If you bring others into a conversation, let them know why; don't just CC them on a huge email trail. For instance, you might say, "Jeff, I'm including you because you have some good insights on foreign exchange rates and I remember you just got back from England."
- Don't reply to previous emails to start a new conversation unless it has some bearing on the current topic.
Sometimes we find we're not getting the results we need from coworkers. Emails and voicemails may go ignored (or it can seem that way). Think before banging out a huffy email and cc:ing someone's manager — this latter tactic can be a disaster for cordial relations unless other avenues have been tried first. Maybe it would make more sense to politely ask your coworker in person about the issue? They may be too tied up to check messages and can refer you to another resource in the company. Unless you have a clear-cut reason to assume someone is blowing you off, give them the benefit of the doubt. If they are dragging their feet deliberately, I recommend approaching your own manager first for assistance.
3: Respect other people's time
Every job is a service job. Whether you work in IT, HR, Marketing, or Administration, you have something other people need. It could be know-how in your job role or the capability to perform certain business functions, like signing purchase orders.
Unless it's a genuine emergency, don't hover outside someone's cube/office while they're busy with someone else, to "wait for them to get off the phone," or finish an existing conversation; just come back later. They will see you and feel pressured to get rid of the existing visitor or end the phone call. Similarly, don't hand off work requests in the hall, kitchen, bathroom, or outside the office. (On one occasion, I bumped into someone at the grocery store on Saturday who asked me to get a new computer for her at the office and wanted an ETA on the spot!) The line between work and personal lives should be respected.
Conduct business operations with others at times that are convenient for both parties. Nobody should ever dread running into you, and they certainly shouldn't depart a grocery store with more tasks on their list for Monday. The lunch break is an area where people can really feel pinched. My rule if I approach a coworker with a business-related question and find them eating lunch is to excuse myself and leave. It doesn't do them any good to gobble a sandwich while looking something up for you, and you probably won't be able to hear them talk with food in their mouth, either.
4: Help yourself
I worked with a benefits coordinator years ago whose favorite gripe was about people who asked simple questions about medical benefits that were right in the manual. "Yes, it's my job to answer questions," she said, "but it's silly to have to answer the same stuff that is right on page one of the book everyone already agreed to review!"
If you need assistance from someone else at work or have a question, see if you can look up the information/try the task before seeking help. Even if you can do this only partially, it will help – and it will earn respect. For instance, if you need to submit a request to your network group to open ports in the firewall, research the ports and the IP addresses of the hosts involved instead of just emailing them to ask "Can you allow remote desktop access from outside the company?" People will know you've done the legwork and will appreciate that.
Some things are best left to the professionals, of course. If the other guy on your IT team is responsible for making DNS changes you could easily perform yourself, you shouldn't proceed on his turf unless he's given you permission to do so and is aware of your action.
5: Proceed with caution on social media
A plethora of social media vehicles come and go; Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn — anyone remember MySpace? However, there's really nothing different about interacting with coworkers on social media as compared to the standard rules of real life that have been around for decades. (Of course, you should review your company's social media policy to be aware of the requirements.)
If you do connect with coworkers through social media, don't engage in inappropriate relationships and don't present an unprofessional side of yourself. We've all heard that it's dumb to post drunken Facebook photos, but a better rule would be to keep any controversial interests or hobbies separate from your coworkers. Don't share confidential information about the company or other workers. Pretend the company president (or board of directors) is personally following your every move on social media and act accordingly. Your job and maintaining the operations and integrity of the company is the priority. A better option might be to restrict work connections to LinkedIn and leave Facebook for "real-life friends," family, neighbors, and so forth.
6: Stay on the level
Treat everyone the same. Office politics can be deadly and sometimes even unavoidable, but reduce your involvement in them wherever possible. Don't gossip or get involved in it when others do. I've seen instances where bad blood developed among employees who kept "whispering" rude things about people they didn't like through instant messaging services. Guess what happened when one of them left their computer unattended? Everyone got a free trip to see the VP of HR and all of them were gone within a few months — except the target of their discussions!
The person you hired might wind up being your boss one day, and your manager might get transferred elsewhere then transferred back to become the one in charge again. I have seen both instances happen in real life, proving that staying on a friendly (or at the very least neutral) basis with everyone possible is always the best policy.
7: Don't gripe about work at work
Everyone vents about the job at times. We are a vent-oriented society. Unless you're an ice cream tester or a gourmet food critic, chances are your job produces stress. Griping is okay — so long as you do it to your significant other, relative, non-work friend, or dog. Keep it outside the company if you can, though.
There's a line in the movie Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, the captain of the unit assigned to find and rescue Private Ryan, tells his subordinates, "Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don't gripe to you. I don't gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger." That's excellent advice. Managers should never display frustration about the company to their staff. It will trickle around; that's a guarantee.
Getting paid to complain about work while you're at work is a little over the top and just fosters an unhealthy victimhood culture. If there's something you can do, do it. If not, address it through the healthiest means possible.
8: Put out a welcome mat
Go out of your way to make new hires welcome. Don't act like you're part of the "Old Timers" network and these young upstarts are trying to crash the party or intrude on your home ground. You once lived through the first day on the job, too. It's not just for the sake of being friendly and making people feel at home; remember tip #6 – that new hire might be a VP in five years. I'm not saying this to suggest buttering people up or acting like a conniving politician so you can maximize your advantages. Rather, I'm emphasizing that everyone plays an important role in a business and even the intern building workstations deserves a "Welcome to the company. Let me know if there's anything I can help you with."
9: Don't pass the buck
Mistakes will always be made. In IT, they can be disastrous. I've seen routing loops caused by two switches linked together twice, servers accidentally unplugged, Active Directory OUs mistakenly dragged and dropped and thereby breaking group policies, and so on and so forth.
It's not enough to acknowledge errors on your part — but it can be tricky when you know someone else caused the problem and management confronts you to explain it. If your coworker Ted clicked Shut Down instead of Log Off when disconnecting from the Exchange server and management wants to know why email is down, "Ted did it!" is not the best response.
In those instances, I recommend asking Ted to talk to the boss and explain what happened on his own. If he's unavailable (or perhaps tied up frantically mounting the Exchange databases) and someone in charge presses you for more information, you should describe exactly what happened. However, do so from the standpoint of an impartial observer: "Mistakes were made. Ted can describe what happened better than I, and I want to make it clear I'm not throwing him under the bus here, but the server was shut down accidentally. Log Off is similar to Shut Down on that Start Menu…." Don't respond like a participant trying to bail himself out.
I have found that a post-mortem analyzing disasters like this and what controls will be put in place to prevent future occurrences can be extremely helpful in solving tensions that erupt when things go awry.
10: Follow up with people
Believe me, this one goes a long way. When you've completed a task involving others, it takes 20 seconds to bang out an email a couple of days later asking "Did that work for you?" or "How are things going?" Every time I've done it this has solidified relations by showing the other party I care how things turned out, and I didn't just treat them like a hot potato to be tossed onto a plate and served to someone else.
These strategies may be common sense, but they can complement an agenda-oriented workplace (isn't that the purpose of business?) to help keep the wheels of business turning in a healthy and productive fashion. If you have other tips and suggestions I'd love to hear more in the comments section!
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.