‘Work Family’ When and how do your employees become your family?
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Arpita Kuila
Arpita Kuila, Head – Human Resources at NEC India

When you reflect on your day during your career, you realise that you spend or have spent a very high proportion of your time at work. A lot of your waking hours during your employed lifetime is spent at work with colleagues. In fact, sometimes you end up spending more time with your ‘work family’ instead of your actual family. Of course, a lot of joy can be had if you enjoy the company of your colleagues and there is a sense of camaraderie at work. So, do we as employees feel that our colleagues are our family, and does the organisation itself give us a feeling of being a part of a large extended family? You often hear employees being referred to as family by leaders and heads of companies. Does one really treat employees as family or is there a difference? Should employees/colleagues become your family and should an organisation feel like home?

In the seminal book First Break All Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, written in 1999, which was one of my first favourite books in management literature, the authors listed 12 key questions of which two, in particular, made me think of the workplace differently:

• Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

• Do I have a best friend at work?

These were part of the series of questions that were intended to help identify the strength of an organisation in terms of employee engagement and what would attract and retain your most talented employees. Thus, having people who care about you at work and people who could be seen as a friend, things that we earlier thought possible only in our personal context, could be of great value in our working life. What this shows, then, is that having people at work that you bond with can definitely make a difference. There are several studies out there that show that having a “familial” relationship with co-workers can enhance a feeling of well-being and improve retention at the work place.

How do you end up developing such close bonds with colleagues? There are many examples which throw light on this matter. Your colleagues are the people with whom you share meals and coffee breaks. You find someone, or become part of a group/gang where you find yourself able to cry on each other’s shoulders, vent about personal problems and work related issues. These are the people with whom you share office gossip, your dreams and ambitions, and you feel that these are the people (or even someone specific) who gets the ‘real’ you. You even hang out after work – catch movies, dinners, a drink, a cup of coffee and many other things. So, you begin to look forward to coming to work just as you do when you know you’re going to a place where you are going to be able to spend time with people you care about and who care about you as well.

Often, companies encourage managers and teams to bond and, in a sense, this is done to help build strong connections between co-workers. Hence, team lunches and dinners are organised regularly – events bringing the entire organisation together where you can interact on a more informal footing and are not compelled to discuss only work. Team activities are ways to bring people who have nothing in common except that they work together, to find not only a way to work harmoniously in a fun and relaxed environment but also to help employees build relationships amongst themselves as they see and experience what it’s like to spend time with each other just as a team.

There are those, however, who feel “family” is not a reference that one should use with respect to work and colleagues; that it is more relevant to just think of a “team” rather than bring in the “family” narrative. The thought behind this is that with a team, there is a diverse set of people coming together to achieve a common mission, vision and goals. A family will not have this nature of diversity or divergent thinking always. A family’s experiences are likely to be similar. Not everyone in a family will come from a different and varied background. In a team context, people may come and people may leave and, also, a person who is not performing well may be asked to leave. So, some posit that thinking of the “work family” is not beneficial and that it is better to think in terms of being a team. One can argue from either side of this debate.

However, there is no arguing the fact that it feels better when you go to work in an environment that you consider positive. The positive feeling is ultimately induced because of your experiences with co-workers and the positive culture of the place. We are, after all, humans and possess a need for social connections. There is a lot of talk today about bringing your whole self to work rather than just one side of you. If that is the case, then the feeling of being safe and relaxed with a few people or a group of people at work can only enhance your experience at the workplace.
Just like friendships that evolve, the work family also has a similar evolution process. So, while you are not born into this family, you do make a new one. You find yourself, over a period of time, gravitating towards a set of people or person/s based on whatever different factors. Before you know it, you will have built some very strong bonds. When this feeling pervades across the organisation, and the culture of the organisation is such that it provides a haven for employees that go beyond the usual mission, vision and goals of the organisation, you will find that you have become part of a large, diverse family of sorts.

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