How to Improve Interpersonal Relationships in the Workplace

lonely employee sitting in empty meeting room

Nearly half of Americans feel lonely, with younger generations feeling particularly isolated, according to a new study by Cigna. The study utilized the best-known tool for measuring loneliness — the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

A large number of respondents (40 percent) also said that they “lack companionship,” their “relationships aren’t meaningful,” and that they feel “isolated from others.”

Look around any restaurant and you’ll quickly see why.

People sit around a table filled with their friends or family members — without looking up. They’re often preoccupied with their phones, texting, watching a video, or playing a game. We spend time sitting next to each other, without really being present with each other.

Social interactions are critical for mental and physical health — and work is no exception. Work friendships contribute to our personal happiness, but they also make you seven times more likely to be engaged at work.

Yet, only 13.3 percent of organizations measure “supportive relationships,” based on a poll we conducted during the webinar, “Are Your People Flourishing? Introducing a New Way to Measure Employee Well-being.”

Read on to find out how to improve interpersonal relationships in the workplace, starting with measuring it.

Measure Interpersonal Relationships

The best way to find out whether your employees feel connected with others?

Ask them.

The Flourishing Index unlocks insight into what employees need to work on most, based on six key domains of “human flourishing,” validated by SHINE (Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Each domain represents an aspect of life that most people want to thrive in.

One of those domains just happens to be “Close Social Relationships.”

We pulse questions to your employees based on these domains throughout the year, in order to help you identify areas where employees may need more support.

As an example, here are two of the questions we ask employees about “Close Social Relationships”:

  • I am content with my friendships and relationships.
    0= Strongly Disagree, 10=Strongly Agree
  • My relationships are as satisfying as I would want them to be.
    0= Strongly Disagree, 10=Strongly Agree

You can then look at this data to quickly see, “What segments of my population feel isolated?”

Based on these insights, you could deploy strategies to improve interpersonal relationships — at an individual and organizational level.

Cultivate a Regenerative Workplace

At an organizational level, you can focus on cultivating a “regenerative workplace,” an environment in which employees have the resources they need to develop and flourish in work and in life, according to SHINE.

In that work environment, employees should feel that:

  • Management truly cares about employee well-being
  • They can trust executive leadership
  • They will be treated fairly
  • People respect them
  • They have the support they need to deal with stress

Why is a regenerative workplace essential to helping people improve interpersonal relationships?

If employees are working in a high-stress environment — where their basic needs are not met — they won’t have the capacity to forge strong friendships. They’ll be too busy feeling overwhelmed by their workload and unhappy with their workplace.

Launching an initiative to improve interpersonal relationships before fixing your work culture would be like putting a Band-Aid over a leaky faucet. It doesn’t fix the root problem — the foundation is broken. You need a supportive foundation in place before you can build upon it.

Make sure your work environment reflects the qualities of a regenerative workplace, above. 

By cultivating a caring work environment, you’ll be setting the stage for deeper, more meaningful work relationships.

Provide Employees with Opportunities to Connect

At an individual level, you might launch initiatives tailored to your population segment that needs help building close, personal relationships.

For example, you could consider hosting recurring events, such as:

  • Lunch and Learns – These are brief, 30-minute presentations that occur during lunch. Employees sign up to speak on any (work appropriate) topic they want and everyone who wants to participate brings their packed lunch into the conference room. As an example, maybe one of your employees enjoys taking nature photographs. They could sign-up to do a presentation on photography, teaching their coworkers “Five Easy Tips to Take Better Photographs from Your iPhone.” This helps employees get to know one another on a more personal level and make more meaningful connections.
  • Teambuilding events – You can host these events anywhere, but having them outside of the office might help people let their guard down a bit more. These could occur on a quarterly basis and could be anything from bowling in teams to an escape room. The ideas for the teambuilding events should be custom to the population segment that needs the most help. For example, if you determine that most of your machine operators need help developing interpersonal relationships — and you know that most of them love football — you could host a Seahawks watch party. Consider coming up with three ideas that management supports and then letting employees vote on the event they’d like to do most.
  • Start Monday meetings with an icebreaker or game – Icebreakers aren’t just for first-time introductions. You can also use them as a tool to help people get to know each other better. The American Management Association suggests handing out gift tags and asking people to draw a logo that resonates with who they are as a person. Go around the room and allow each person to talk about their choice. For example, someone might choose the National Geographic logo because they love to travel. Another employee might select the Olympics logo because they enjoy playing competitive sports.
  • Intrinsic Coaching – Sometimes, we might need help developing interpersonal relationships period — not just at work. Maybe your population subset that needs help with “Close Social Relationships” tends to be introverted. Or maybe they’ve been hurt by someone close to them in the past — and they’ve built walls to protect themselves. Intrinsic coaching programs meet people where they are in their journey, so they can flourish at work and in life.

These strategies can help people start conversations, find common ground, and improve their ability to develop interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, they can also help employees feel like they belong to something even greater than themselves — a community that truly cares about one another.