Matt Ephgrave, Managing Director at Just Eat for Business
One of the most important workplace trends over the past decade has been a transition towards individuality. It’s become more acceptable, and even expected, for people to ‘be themselves’ at work. This is, at least in part, the result of people’s desire for freedom of expression. In many cases, employees (especially younger members of the workforce) want to wear the same clothes with their colleagues that they do with their friends. They want to act the same way at home as in the office.
Companies have used this as a competitive differentiator to attract talent. Silicon Valley tech HQs have exploited it – and now, all businesses are having to accept this increased desire for individualism and the new status quo. The problem is, for many, change has only taken place at a superficial level. Companies encourage employees to buddy up to their bosses over ping pong during their lunch break, but those employees remain uncomfortable talking to them about simple work-related problems. The disconnect that many experienced from their colleagues during the pandemic has only accentuated this division.
Just Eat for Business’s own research has revealed the extent of the gap between what’s on the surface and the true reality. Out of the UK workers we surveyed, over a third feel uncomfortable talking about stress at work, and disagreements with colleagues presented one of their main sources of stress. People feel uncomfortable in their workplaces – at home or in the office. It’s their employers’ duty to change that.
Building trust to create an open culture
Creating a work environment where employees feel comfortable talking about their problems with colleagues is a difficult task. The concept itself is abstract – after all, the specific factors that make people feel comfortable enough to open up are often obscure. With some consideration, however, we can pick out certain aspects of a company’s systems that contribute to a strong and positive culture.
The first part of the solution involves building relationships. In relationships outside work – friends, family, partners, there’s a positive correlation between the depth of the relationship and the amount a person is willing to reveal. My closest friends and family members are the ones I reveal the most to, and I’m guessing others are the same. Building those relationships is easier than one might think. A company’s employees already share a common interest – their work. There will, of course, be others, and given the right environment, they’ll find them and create connections over them.
To create that environment, employers should consider organising inter-departmental group social trips. You could head to the museum, the pub, or a new theatre production – all of these will encourage team bonding. People spend a lot of time with those within their departments at work, and if they only mingle with those they work with, conversation will often descend into work topics, which is not what you want. Mixing departments and offering a shared experience they can bond over will ensure the relationships grow from those they’ve already built in the office.
Once employees have built those connections, they may still struggle to gain the trust that comes more easily with non-work friends. People associate colleagues with work, and they don’t want any personal problems to affect their career progression. By offering more opportunities to connect through one-to-one sessions or buddy programmes, employers can encourage them to overcome this fear.
One in five of our survey respondents admitted they would be unable to identify a colleague experiencing stress at work. That should be a case for serious concern. It shows, above all, that employees and employers don’t know each other nearly as well as they should. By building stronger relationships across the company, team chemistry will improve, and employers will stand a better chance at understanding the people who work for them as a result.
Understanding your employees’ needs
The real benefit of creating a more open culture at work is increased knowledge. Companies will gain a much better understanding of who their employees are and what they want. Knowing such information, they’ll be able to make their employees happier, which will increase retention, attract new talent, and improve productivity.
Among those working in the UK, our survey discovered a third found that balancing their work with their personal lives proved the most stressful aspect of employment. This should be telling employers that serious change is in order. Yet, many employers continue to use rigid working arrangements. This only highlights the disconnect between what employers know about their employees, and what they should know.
The good thing is, those who find working life stressful are aware of what their employers could do to improve the situation. Almost 40% think a four-day week trial could help to reduce their stress, and a further 15% think a flexible working arrangement could work too. However, these kinds of insights are never discovered if employees feel uncomfortable sharing their true feelings at work, as we found in our study. That’s why it’s so important to build good relationships within a workforce.
A change to the traditional working arrangements in the UK may have been coming for a long time, but the pandemic has brought its due date forward. Workers are unhappy, and employers need to consider how they can build ideal working cultures to succeed over the next few years. Understanding their employees will be crucial – and building strong relationships among and across their teams will help them achieve that.