Psychologists Would Like to Remind You That Your Colleagues Exist Outside of Work

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Photo: NBC

A piece of advice a mentor-type friend once gave me, which I remember often: It’s so easy to forget that the people you work with are people, who exist outside of the silly demands of your office. You’ll be happier — and, in the long run, more successful — she said, if you remember that. In the June issue of Harvard Business Review, two organizational psychologists remind readers of exactly this, noting that failure to remember this all-too-easy-to-forget fact can create unnecessary conflict within teams. Their solution: Maybe you could talk about the hours you all spend outside of work sometimes!

The phrase that the piece’s co-authors, organizational psychologists Martine Haas of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Mark Mortensen of INSEAD, use to get this message across is “structured unstructured time,” which in plainer English means something like, well, chitchat. They suggest taking ten minutes at the start of a team meeting for colleagues to discuss anything and everything, from what happened over the weekend to office stuff that’s not immediately related to the task at hand.

It’s maybe especially important to do that for remote workers, Haas and Mortensen say:

One team we came across had a related tactic: Its members initially “met” over desktop video and gave one another virtual tours of their workspaces. By simply panning the camera around the room, they were able to show their remote colleagues their work environment—including things that were likely to distract or disrupt them, such as closely seated coworkers in an open-plan space or a nearby photocopier. After the tours the team members found that they were better able to interpret and understand distant colleagues’ attitudes and behaviors.

And, yes, this, on the one hand, seems hilariously obvious. But it’s also true that friendships formed in the office are a huge part of job satisfaction: Workers who feel like they know their teammates on a personal level are also more likely to be loyal to their organizations; they also tend to be more productive, and they take fewer sick days. It’s easy to see your colleagues as one-dimensional. But it’s better for everyone to remember the teensy fact that these people in your office have lives outside the office, too.