Knowing Your Coworkers Matters More Than You Think

Chats over coffee, lunch outings and happy hours might seem like a break from work. But actually, building rapport is crucial to your team’s success.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Aug. 25, 2021
Knowing Your Coworkers Matters More Than You Think

You might think that an engineering leader would be too swamped with code reviews and security audits to do much socializing. But for Molly Brown, VP of engineering at Seattle-based software company Qumulo, that’s not entirely true. When it comes to the company’s tech stack, she has a lot on her plate but she’s learned that building strong friendships at work is important for being an effective leader.

“It’s sort of a running joke that I’m never at my desk. I’m always walking around the office and reaching out to folks,” she said. “I really enjoy those ad hoc conversations with people and I pretty intentionally kept myself available.”

On the surface, these office chats may seem totally removed from the work that the Qumulo team is doing. But that’s far from the case. Instead of distracting from work, the conversations she has with her employees and peers builds rapport — and without that Qumulo would be worse off.

How to Build Rapport With Your Team

  • Begin with building trust
  • Be vulnerable about your own challenges
  • Offer your employees feedback and praise
  • Set up social time to bond
  • Respect your team’s boundaries

Just as technical skill and value alignment are crucial to high-functioning teams, so are good relationships. Employees that establish connections with one another feel more comfortable and can safely take risks and communicate needs. A team without good rapport is bound to fail, so those lunchtime chats and team outings do more than just kill time — they help your teammates become stronger players and happier people.

Managers can do a lot to help foster those relationships and improve the health of their team culture. If leaders want to make their teams stronger, they have to look at more than just their work output and see their employees as people first.

“You can only retain your team if they like the people they work with,” said Kevin Wu, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based online tech mentorship company Pathrise. “That’s why it’s important for a manager to invest in their employees and build relationships with them that go beyond work.”

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Begin With Trust

If you’ve ever been scolded for goofing off in class, you might think that work and play don’t mix. However, in the workplace, strong teams are built on friendships.

Employees who care about their work know when socializing is appropriate and are capable of finding a middle ground between their tasks and friendships. It doesn’t mean that less work gets done.

“Strong working relationships are built on mutual trust, respect and understanding. When that’s in place, everyone benefits,” said Steve Polacek, co-founder of Chicago-based UX design company Eight Bit Studios. “Energy and engagement go up, sick days and stress go down, and ideas are shared more often.”

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Be Vulnerable

Good relationships are easier to build if people are free to be themselves, but your employees will only feel comfortable opening up if you lead the way first. Managers wield a tremendous amount of power to set the tone for their workplace, so if you’re authentic in your interactions, your team will see the office as a safe place to loosen up.

“Ask personalized questions that show that you’re interested in who someone is, beyond generic questions.”

“I tell my employees about struggles and challenges I am personally facing, rather than trying too hard to play a part,” Wu said.

In your regular interactions, show your teammates that you have a real interest in their well-being and their lives. At Pathrise, Wu said he’s been able to establish better relationships with his team during check-in meetings. “Ask personalized questions that show that you’re interested in who someone is, beyond generic questions,” he said. Work on getting to know your employees as people first — you’ll have more meaningful discussions and lay the groundwork for lasting relationships.

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Offer Feedback and Praise Generously

Consistent feedback helps a lot when it comes to your team’s productivity and growth, but it also helps strengthen your interpersonal relationships. People like to know when they’ve done well and how their contributions have been important. When you recognize your employees for their work often, they’re going to feel more valued and be happier about their place on your team.

“There isn’t much information that I withhold from my employees about the business, which enables them to gain more context and make more informed strategic decisions,” Wu said.

The more creative you can get about delivering recognition the better. Offer your employees prizes when they’ve reached a goal, host celebration parties, or encourage the team to send appreciation cards to coworkers. It makes the office more fun and will keep people excited about their workday. It’s also never too early to offer an employee praise for a job well done, even if they’re a new hire.

“When we were in the office, we used to give extended standing ovations to new hires at the end of their first day,” Polacek said.

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Set Up Social Time

The majority of your day should be devoted to work, but that doesn’t mean you have to be doing heads down work every day. Friendships and socialization are a huge part of any healthy workplace, so setting aside designated time for your teammates to socialize will boost morale, break up the workday and help your team form tight-knit bonds.

“Managers can create space for employee friendship by developing events or routines that allow for it,” Wu said.

Test out new structures for your team meetings that save time for fun fact sharing or for people to talk about their days, set up a weekly happy hour or encourage your team to eat lunch together to chat about things other than work. It can inspire collaboration and new ideas.

“Managers can create space for employee friendship by developing events or routines that allow for it.”

“Our engineers have been really creative about what they do to build camaraderie,” Brown said. “They do puzzle breaks and online games together to bring a little bit of the social to the daily work. It helps them enjoy work more.”

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Respect Workplace Boundaries

Managers should express an interest in their employees’ personal lives, but it is possible for that to go too far. Overstepping boundaries in your professional relationships can make your employees feel uncomfortable and can create power dynamic issues that make it harder to get work done.

“I think it’s a problem when managers build rapport with their employees, exactly like they would with their friends and family,” Wu said. “It’s hard to imagine giving your friends or family performance feedback on a weekly basis without generating tension and animosity, but that’s the precedent you’ll have to normalize with your reports.”

“Lack of empathy is a problem, but so is too much.”

Successful professional friendships are built on strong boundaries, and as a leader you should set those up. For instance, it’s perfectly fine to schedule casual check-ins and coffee chats during the workday, but don’t interrupt their work constantly to talk about your personal life or call your direct reports after hours unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Creating strong boundaries not only protects your employees and your relationships, but also helps you conserve your energy. You have a responsibility to cultivate a healthy office culture where employees can authentically bond, but you can only do that if you tend to your well-being first. Be friendly and present for your employees when they need you, but know when to take a step back and be by yourself.

“One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is not setting healthy emotional boundaries,” Polacek said. “Lack of empathy is a problem, but so is too much.”

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