Managing the Agile Workforce – Chapter 5: Building and Sustaining Relationships

It was no surprise to find from our research on Managing the Agile Workforce that relationships are of key importance to the performance of any team. However, when team members spend much of their time apart, as with other factors, they need to pay attention to maintaining their relationships through different means.

The most effective work relationships are those that stimulate employees to go beyond what is expected in terms of their job description and performance. They are most likely to put in extra effort because they have good relationships and they trust their manager and colleagues to reciprocate. Over time, ideally there will be a fair exchange between the parties.

Building Work Relationships

There are two different mechanisms at work here – between colleagues the concept of social cohesion (knowing each other well, liking each other and having each other’s back) is very strongly correlated with team performance (read more in our blog on Social Cohesion).  The other mechanism has been described as ‘Leader-Member Exchange (LMX)’ – and this refers to the work relationship between a person and their manager, so is all about the interpersonal relationships between these two parties (not between the leader and the team as an entity).

Research has shown that the relationship between leader and individual (LMX) is positively related not only to performance, but to job satisfaction, turnover intentions, levels of innovation and commitment to the organisation. This links to our findings about the importance of the nature and quality of supervisory support delivered by manager to individual, which in turn is known to transfer to the organisation (i.e. if someone has a good relationship with their manager, they tend to look favourably on the organisation too).


What happens to relationships when we’re apart?

When we don’t see each other so often (either because we are working in different locations or time zones), we make more use of different (usually computerised/digital) forms of communication. The quality of our communications (under any circumstances) is clearly critical to our performance and success – but when we are apart (relying more on email, IMs, phone calls etc), the chance of misunderstandings, delays and a lower sharing of information can easily happen.

Misunderstandings, delays, confusion, misdirection and lack of pertinent information can bring relationships under strain – either between colleagues or between manager and team member. Hence if relationships between the parties are already low, then working virtually (with its added challenges) can make them worse, unless something is done to redress the balance.

The other factor which is key is the amount of distance between parties – both physical and psychological. Physical distance is how far apart people actually are – i.e. one party is in the London office and the other is in the New York office – therefore they can’t engage in those ‘water cooler’ moments, or more social activities such as having lunch together, or going out after work.

While physical distance has an impact on work relationships, it is the psychological distance and the (subjective) perception of the physical distance between parties that have a higher impact on the quality of work relationships.


Psychological distance

This is the feeling of separation that people experience – i.e. how close you feel to your manager and how close they feel to you. The more people feel they have in common, the more they take an interest in each other (as people), the greater the feelings of closeness and the less psychological distance they tend to experience. It can easily be seen that if we work apart most of the time, then unless we make an effort to connect with each other, the more we are likely to feel a greater distance between us. If the London and New York colleagues have spent time together socially, regularly discuss their family lives, are in regular contact on work and non-work issues, the better the work relationships will be.

Conversely, if they communicate infrequently by brief, poorly worded emails (which frequently take many exchanges to reach a conclusion), know nothing about each other apart from a vague notion of the other person’s skills / experience – then they are unlikely to feel close to each other, to go the extra mile or to have each other’s back. If you think about the people you feel closest to, they aren’t necessarily geographically close, nor those that you see every day. The depth and strength of the relationship is what’s important – i.e. the things that have taken place in the past (and what is done on an ongoing basis) to reinforce the importance of the relationship.

Personality is a factor that comes into play here, a team that welcomes social cohesion and inter-personal relationships will attract people who will overcome the challenge of distance.


Practical steps to take when building and sustaining work relationships

The first aspect is to raise awareness of attitudes – particularly in the mind of the manager. For team members to give their best, they need to feel trusted and supported by their manager – at least as equally as they perceive others are treated. Feelings of inequality and unfairness will have a negative effect on the person’s performance and the effectiveness of the manager’s leadership. Managers should therefore try to avoid creating disparities and keep as many members of the team as “close” as possible.

Another consideration is that ideally everyone assumes responsibility for the relationship that exists between them – not waiting for the other party to take action or reach out. When working apart, a lack of communication can be perceived with suspicion (perhaps if the parties’ working relationship isn’t strong), whereas the people are probably harbouring different interpretations about what is going on. The only way to address this impasse is to open a dialogue.

Building trust, loyalty and respect cements the position of team members within the team – thus they get something back and a virtuous circle is completed. Doing this virtually requires more effort and planning – but also it’s vital to make the most of whatever time the members have to spend with each other in person, and to plan that time carefully.

A few final tips for managers and their team members (yes, there’s a dual responsibility!):

  • Take responsibility for developing and maintaining trust by focusing on the quality and frequency of communication and delivering on promises and commitments
  • Proactively address areas of conflict through constructive problem-solving approaches to maintain strength within the team
  • Stay focused on goals and remain positive about accomplishing them – an unsupportive manager or recalcitrant team member is just another obstacle to be tackled!
  • People should empower themselves to get things done
  • Meet regularly to review motives, attitudes and benefits of the working relationship – which will help establish mutual expectations and understandings

These require transparency and honesty and will only be possible in an atmosphere of trust and an absence of blame. Without them, working relationships (particularly virtual ones) can go sour and unproductive very quickly.


In our next blog we continue our exploration of the agile workforce, considering the impact of something we are all susceptible to – Cognitive bias.

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