Should coworkers be like family? The case for a 'neighborly' relationship

HBR: Fostering a sense of community in the office is important

Companies should foster "neighbor" relationships among employees to increase engagement and improve productivity, Art Markman writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Markman—a professor at University of Texas at Austin and the author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done—argues that relationships in the workplace fit in three categories: strangers, neighbors, and family.

He says neighborly relationships are good for work because, with neighbors, "we try to balance what we do for them and what we get from them over time," constructing a "common vision" to work toward shared goals.

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Markman argues familial relationships are a poor fit for the office because work is inherently transactional. People often do whatever is needed for family and expect nothing in return. Nor should colleagues be strangers, because it can make interactions too transactional, and workers "are not motivated to go above and beyond the specific tasks presented to help the organization fulfill its goals."

When organizations create a neighborly environment, workers feel secure because they have a sense the company is looking out for their best interests, and employees "put in a reasonable amount of extra time and effort for each other."

Markman offers several tips for organizations trying to foster neighborly relationships among their employees:

  • Invest in training. Training programs that help employees develop personal and professional skills show that the company cares about their long-term success and development. Supporting people's long-term goals builds a sense of community.
  • Provide personal connections to upper management. Business units that feel isolated may bond together locally, but not feel like they are part of a larger, company-wide community. When upper management is engaged throughout the company, people also feel valued as individuals.
  • Connect individual work to the big picture. When employees see their work tasks as part of the larger goals of the organization, they develop a shared send of purpose—like in a neighborhood.
  • Cultivate a sense of stewardship among managers. When managers feel responsible for creating a sense of community, employees who begin to feel disconnected are given resources to engage with company's broader mission (Markman, "HBR Blog," Harvard Business Review, 10/31).

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