For anyone who’s ever had an office job, two things are pretty obvious. On the one hand, it’s important to have friends at work. Those relationships have a strong bearing on job satisfaction, and it’s always useful to have someone in your corner to confer with when your work life hits a rough patch. But the other well-known reality is that too many social relationships around the office can stop you from getting much done. In fact, one of the top causes for lost productivity, at least on an individual level, is the distraction brought on simply by having coworkers in close proximity.
Still, you can’t neglect to build strong relationships with the people around you in a near-sighted quest for short-term efficiency. Without solid working relationships, it’s less likely anyone will go the extra mile for the sake of the team, and it’s easier that way for conflicts to escalate. The key to striking a good balance is simply to cultivate good relationships by being intentional.
What does that mean exactly? That you don’t actually have to befriend everyone in your office, just as long as you stick to these five thoughtful habits that can sustain your relationships with your coworkers over the long haul.
1. Express Gratitude
Given the insane quantity of emails many people receive, you shouldn’t feel obligated to answer every message even with a simple “Thanks!” It’s just not necessary and might even be unintentionally annoying.
But if your coworker has clearly put in extra work on a project or done something well, taking a few seconds to acknowledge their effort can go a long way. It’s as simple as dashing off a quick email or Slack message to share a sincere compliment like, “Thank you for your extra work on this project. It turned out great!” That can make the difference between your colleagues feeling amazing about their efforts versus unacknowledged and unappreciated.
Show your appreciation face-to-face as well. In one-on-one meetings, or even just a casual run-in outside the office kitchen, remember to thank someone for an assignment they completed particularly well. Or if someone brings up a smart idea in a meeting, recognize it with a simple, “That’s a great point, thanks for mentioning it.” It really is that easy–and that effective.
2. Make Time To Meet
Meeting calendars can get out of control, and it can be tempting to reschedule your appointments on short notice, especially with your direct reports. But when you consistently de-prioritize meeting with them, you’re basically telling them that that one-on-one time isn’t important to you. As a result, when something important to you comes up that you need them to put in extra hours on, their minds may jump to, “Hhhhmmm . . . well, you couldn’t make 30 minutes for me over the last three weeks, and now you want me to help you out by working on Saturday?”
The opposite can also be true, though. If you consistently invest in the people who work for you–by honoring your one-on-one meetings and showing through your actions that they’re a priority–then when you ask for something extra, they’re more likely to reply, “I’d be happy to” (and mean it). Offering your time and attention to your coworkers and direct reports doesn’t mean becoming close personal friends with them, but it’s a crucial way to show they matter and that they can rely on you.
3. Proactively Offer Support
Everyone has times when they feel particularly vulnerable at work. Perhaps it’s at the start of a new project when the project plan needs definition, maybe it’s when a major issue comes up halfway through, or maybe it isn’t until the home-stretch. Whatever the case may be, try to stay aware of these moments times for your coworkers.
You need to be able to anticipate when a task or project they’ve been working on might be turning a corner, and offer support whenever you can. Being friends with your coworkers isn’t the only way to know when those moments arise; you don’t need to be chatting regularly over lunch each day to know when your colleagues might be able to use a hand. Just pay attention to the rhythms of your own work and the big initiatives your whole team or department is tackling, and use that as a prompt to reach out.
For example, you could offer to help with an initial brainstorming meeting or to go through the slide deck your colleague has been working on before she actually presents it. And in this case, too, it only takes a short email to do that:
I know that [stressful situation] is happening. I’d be glad to meet with you about it in case you could use a hand. If not no worries! Just wanted to let you know I’m a resource if you need it.
4. Remember Milestones
People like to feel like they’re noticed and remembered. One simple thing you can do is to put a recurring annual reminder on your calendar for your coworkers’ birthdays. If they’re someone who works for you or is a significant enough connection at work that a card or small gift might be appropriate, schedule the reminder for a week before their actual birthday, so you can remember to pick something up. Do the same for work anniversaries, too, so you can remember to tell people you appreciate the time they’ve been at the company since first joining your team.
5. Just Be Present
Finally, when you’re spending time with someone, just be all there–even if it’s no more than a 90-second interaction. If at all possible, stay off your phone or computer when you interact with others. Be an emotionally intelligent listener (these tips can help if you’re not sure how). Make eye contact and express–either verbally or nonverbally–that you’re genuinely glad to be able to chat. And if you’re in the middle of something when coworker swings by your desk, don’t sneer passive-aggressively and have the conversation anyway, showing your annoyance that they’ve interrupted you. Just ask if you can grab them as soon as you’re done–and follow through on it.
Time is limited, and you need to make careful choices about how you invest it. And yes, you still do need a few friendships around the office–but you can’t be best buddies with everyone. These five strategies are simply ways to make thoughtfulness into a regular habit. They might only take a few seconds, but they’re essentially for cultivating the strong relationships with your colleagues that you all need to thrive.