Coworkers: The Family You Choose?

Work Group as Family
Work Group

Most adults spend 90,000 hours of their lives at work, so it’s natural that we want to feel deeply connected to the individuals we work alongside all day. Employees who feel emotionally connected with one another report they are not only happier at work, but also more engaged and creative. In fact, employees who work with their best friend are 7 times more likely to be fully engaged at work. With such key business outcomes on the line, naturally many organizations aspire to a family-like culture where employees feel deeply connected and comfortable with one another.

From picnics to softball leagues and pot lucks, organizations create opportunities for the line between coworker and friend to blur a bit. But it’s important to note that as an engagement strategy, pursuing family status is inherently risky.

First, there’s a good chance that you’re expecting too much of your employees. We often ask larger favors of our family than our friends. We may go out of our way to help a family member move into a 3rd floor apartment in the middle of summer than our friends, because there is an expectation that you should be able to rely on family more than anyone else. The more family-like your workplace culture becomes, the more likely you’re asking larger and larger favors of your employees that fall outside of the standard job description or professional expectations. It also becomes more difficult for employees in the family culture to push back when they feel they’re being overly burdened by favors/requests.

It’s easy to focus on all of the positive aspects of the family-like environment where coworkers treat one another with respect, care deeply about each other’s happiness and success, and communicate productively. But organizations weren’t created because we needed a second group of individuals to call family. Organizations serve a purpose. They produce goods and services that fulfill a specific need in the marketplace, and they make money. When they fail to produce goods and services or fail to turn a profit, then suddenly the notion of a tightly knit family begins to unravel.

For leaders who must make tough decisions on employment contracts, promotions, project assignments, etc., there is an emotional burden that must be carried in a workplace-family culture. Whether the separation is voluntary or involuntary, it often feels like a divorce. The obligation to make decisions based on the health and future of the organization overshadows the personal feelings a leader may have for his/her work family.

There’s a healthy debate to be had regarding what company culture we should pursue if not one based on a family-like atmosphere. Ultimately, the issue isn’t the semantics of the term, it’s the common understanding that while one may value someone like family, they’re bound by a shared mission and obligation. Maintaining a healthy understanding of that nuanced relationship can preserve the positive aspects of a family-culture while also establishing clear expectations for the relationship.