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Are your work relationships tying you to your job?

In our hunter-gatherer past, all the work we did was for our tribe. We hunted deer and gathered berries to provide for people we cared about.  ‘Jobs’ were communal activities and we literally experienced the fruits of our labour.

Nowadays, many of us walk into concrete buildings, sit next to people we don’t really know to produce something for someone we’ve never met. To compensate for such a lack of natural connection, organisations artificially create a sense of community. We attend after-work drinks, team-building events and large meetings.

Some companies are striving to make your whole life revolve around your work.

They’re adding gyms, laundry, day-care and sleeping pods to their offices. This reduces your tendency to take part in activities outside your workplace that would expand your social circle to non-co-workers.

In my old workplace, I was the first one to advocate for making your colleagues your friends. I’ve spoken about this being one of the three elements of a meaningful working life. Sense of community in the Western world is in decline. Religious communities are dying out, and more social interaction happens in artificial online settings – which are and will forever be an inadequate substitute for the real-world. With social communities diminishing, it would seem beneficial that organisations are stepping up to fill this gap. Why is this a problem? Our relationships with colleagues can trap us in a job we don’t like.

More of us are leaving behind our hometowns and university cities to start a job in a new place. With old connections left behind and other societal communities in decline, we form a dependency on work to function as our central social circle. This is particularly influential, as the need for connection is hard-wired into us. We are social animals that need each other for protection and support.

Loving our work and our colleagues is incredible. It's the sweet spot that enables true work-life integration. But... what happens when one of those elements starts to dissatisfy us? If we’re considering changing jobs, we will develop the fear of losing our social safety net on top of financial security and sense of stability. This makes us settle for mediocrity (as I wrote about last month.)

Working from home during the pandemic has led to work relationships fading, as we lose the physical connection and serendipitous touchpoints. We are breaking the dependency on our professional social circle. 

The lockdown has unmasked the mediocrity of our daily work tasks. No more coffee chats to get us through the day. We’re questioning what our work was giving us besides social connection.

This phenomenon led to my girlfriend quitting her job (along with some coaching from me 😉). She used to get energy from colleagues but missed this while working from home during lockdown. It became clear that her actual work activities were draining her.

If you feel this dependency between work and your social circle, try to break it. In all areas of life, dependency creates powerlessness. You lose freedom and autonomy, which are - alongside our need for connection – vital human needs. Here are three things you can do:

1.      Maintain old social circles outside your workplace. Even if they live in other countries, take the time to connect virtually. In the days of social distancing, connecting virtually has become a more mainstream and acceptable alternative.

2.      Create new local connections. Find shared interest groups on Meetup, join local sports teams, take classes in a new skill. And make an effort to take those relationships beyond their initial context if you really click with someone.

3.      Decide how much social time you wish to dedicate to colleagues - and choose them wisely. How many of these people would you actually like to keep close in your life if one of you leaves the organisation?

Quality relationships are proven to be the biggest factor in our happiness; they are woven into us as a species. That’s why having strong relationships at work can be wonderful. Just don’t let them tie you down to a mediocre job.


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