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A Guide to Building Positive and Productive Office Relationships

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

Two co-workers chatting by the window.

Think about some of your best moments at work. It can be at any job—not necessarily your current one. The times when you’ve felt most fulfilled, most proud of your accomplishments, most happy.

Chances are, you’re thinking not just about what you were doing in those moments but also who you were with—the higher-up who recognized your accomplishments or the colleagues who were right there with you, cheering you on.

That’s not an accident. As Brandon Smith aka “The Workplace Therapist” explains, workplace relationships are directly tied to workplace happiness. And in a time when half of full-time workers report spending more time at work than with their families or on their own, workplace relationships are becoming vital to overall happiness as well.

But how do you build positive workplace relationships that help you to be happier and more productive at work while still maintaining personal boundaries?

In this post, Smith and other experts weigh in.

Start by building trust

Smith uses a trust formula to break down the components into a mathematical equation:

Trust = (authenticity + vulnerability) x credibility

The formula involves multiplication, he explains, because if you multiply anything by zero, the answer will always be zero. So if you have zero credibility among your colleagues, you’ll have zero trust with them.

Credibility: You can start building your credibility by being responsive and always meeting a deadline, Smith says. Even if you don’t know the answer to a colleague’s question, responding right away to say you’ve received the message and you’re looking into it adds to your credibility.

Vulnerability: Working on your vulnerability isn’t necessarily about being emotionally vulnerable. It can be as simple as asking for help, Smith says. When you admit that you don’t know the answer, you’re being vulnerable to a colleague while opening up a line of communication, which is central to any relationship.

Authenticity: Authenticity doesn’t have to mean bringing your emotional baggage or your weekend-partying self to the office. It can mean wearing dress pants instead of a pencil skirt if that’s what you’re more comfortable in (and fits your office dress code), or being honest about when you’ve made a mistake.

Building trust with remote colleagues

Smith’s trust formula works with colleagues who you don’t see on a daily basis, too. You can build credibility through your responsiveness and the quality of your work whether you’re down the hall or on the other side of the country. Same thing with asking for help.

Authenticity can be a little harder to demonstrate from far away, but you can focus on credibility and vulnerability first and then focus on authenticity when you’re in the office for the annual team-building retreat or a series of in-person meetings. Smith says he’s seen remote employees come into town a day early so they can go out for coffee with their colleagues, check in with one another, and take other steps that display authenticity and a genuine interest in connecting.

If you don’t visit your organization’s headquarters often (or at all), you can have these conversations over video chat using Google Hangouts, Zoom, or your organization’s chosen platform.

What if you’re based in the organization’s office and you want to strengthen your relationships with remote colleagues? Remote employees often feel left out, so one way to demonstrate that you care—another important element of any relationship—is to share information that they might otherwise miss or hear on a delayed timeline since they aren’t in the office. And we’re not talking about personal gossip; rather, the focus is on relevant work information, such as a change in a report release date or the fact that a new hire in a different department has started.

Show appreciation

Once you’ve built a solid foundation of trust, you can keep adding to that by giving positive feedback and showing appreciation. For example, if you make yourself vulnerable by asking for advice from a colleague, let them know how things turned out and thank them for their guidance.

According to Smith, appreciation can flow in every direction; across to your colleagues, up to your bosses, and down to your direct reports.

It also comes in many different forms—some weightier than others, he adds. A handwritten note signals that you spent precious time giving this feedback, and people often keep handwritten notes of appreciation.

Emails, instant messages, and text messages are still valuable, though. Anything that demonstrates that you took time out of your day to show someone appreciation is going to strengthen that relationship.

Respect personal boundaries

Your goal with workplace relationships is “professional intimacy,” Smith says, meaning you get to know each other beyond the surface while still keeping things professional. The pathway to intimacy is asking questions. Questions such as, “How was your weekend?” or “How long have you lived in X city?” can help you get to know someone without prying too much into their personal life.

Executive Coach Joel Garfinkle suggests that after you ask a question and genuinely listen to the person’s answer, share something about yourself so the conversation becomes a two-way interaction.

Pro Tip: Check out our Workplace Friendships Dos and Don’ts for more tips on how to strike a balance between personal connection and professional conventions.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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