Working relationships; an emerging casualty of the pandemic?

Much of the recent workplace focus has been on how, where and when we will work into the future, particularly in recent weeks in Ireland with the publication of the Right to Request Remote Working Bill, 2021. These topics and discussions are certainly key to the future of work and deserve the attention they are receiving. Whilst it is also appropriate to focus on concrete aspects of the working environment — making sure technology works seamlessly in remote settings, that work schedules make sense and ensuring health and safety policies are adjusted to multiple working arrangement we need to go deeper than these practicalities;  additional attention needs to be paid to social connectedness, work’s community aspect and most importantly leaders and managers competence to build and maintain good working relationships.

In the background to these larger debates around the future of work some worrying research is emerging around the health of interpersonal relationships at work, with some studies highlighting that the impact of the pandemic has not only negatively impacted mental health but also working relationships.

Many experienced leaders I have worked with over the past year find that they are becoming more and more challenged to engage and motivate their teams given the constant change around working arrangements. Some found that former solid well established working relationships became more distant as a result of changing working arrangements, specifically remote working and our work together was focused on learning more about these new dynamics and with this reflection clients found it crucial to adjust leadership styles to suitably adapt to individual employee’s situations.   However, problems also seemed to arise in this area for those who continued to work and lead others in the office or workplace. Many of my clients surmise that in their case as well as for those they lead or manage,  their work has become remarkably different due to the pandemic. Some also report that they noticed for some of their team members,  pre-existing disinterest was magnified given the challenges of working through the pandemic while others discovered a new level of dissatisfaction for their positions or entire discipline. And although it is not reasonable to expect that every worker has to love every aspect of their role, 100% of the time, keeping the relationship positive – or at least neutral – is key for many to get through the day.

According to recent reports, there is also a lost generation of leaders emerging who need additional support to get them up to speed with others in organisations, with a key challenge emerging around developing and maintaining positive working relationships with their team members. This is attributed to a large cohort of leaders who were thrown into the deep end with significantly less training  and support during the pandemic than others who stepped into similar roles before the pandemic.

When employees have high levels of engagement this has a transformational impact on organisational performance. Research shows that the quality of the relationship people feel they have with their immediate leader or manager is the primary driver of these feelings of engagement. 

Relationships really matter in the workplace and organisations who focus on developing the competence of their leaders and managers to build and maintain relationships will find that they substantially increase their ability to attract, keep and get the very best out of their people.