The internet’s frequent intrusion into our personal lives is often fueled by (and blamed on) the unremitting demands of the workplace. Many people consider this inevitable – and these days, they may well be right! But this shouldn’t be cause to abandon hope. It certainly ispossible to work on setting limits – to protect the time you have with your partner, family, and friends – and to make a difference in the way that you respond to the internet’s endless claims on your attention. And trust us, we know – the feeling of fighting a losing battle can make it pretty easy to give up! Many people have had the experience of dutifully responding to contacts from their coworkers or employer and noticed that the precedent that they set can’t be un-set. Once you make yourself available, it is expected that you will always be available: you’re stuck in a Chinese Fingertrap.
The prevalence of this problem alarming. We’d like to end this week on The Gottman Reationship Blog with a short list of Dr. Gottman’s tips for creating and maintaining healthy connections with co-workers that demonstrate interest and dedication – without compelling you to perpetually attend to the whims of your mobile devices. In fact, we will go further still – and show you how, in the implementation of some of the specifics, you can make the internet work for you!

Note: The following list provides some ideas for creating a healthy work environment, strengthening bonds and respect among co-workers, and creating the opportunity for employees to set personal boundaries in availability outside of regular work hours. We understand that some of these suggestions may not be applicable or feasible to implement in your work situation. The list below is simply intended as a starting point – a set of tips we hope will guide you in thinking about ways you can make some of these ideas work in your own life:

Team meetings: Call your co-workers to team meetings warmly and don’t leave anyone out! If someone on the team is contributing to the project but you feel that their opinion isn’t strictly necessary in decision making, remember that their exclusion may leave them feeling disrespected and unappreciated. If you’re on the fence, invite them as a gesture of appreciation for the work that they are doing – thereby improving everyone’s experience in the work environment. In this case, you can use the internet to your advantage by including everyone on your team in the invitation email (“CC:-ing” all members of your work group).

Introductions: The first day at a new job is rarely a relaxing experience. The stress of coming into a new workplace can be greatly alleviated by warm introductions to one’s coworkers-to-be. So stop and say hi! We’re all the new guy at some point –  so when we’re not the new guy/girl, we might as well make the them feel welcome.

Bulletin boards, staff newsletters, and intranet newsgroups: Though these communication tools require time and effort to maintain, they can make enormously positive changes in office life. In these kinds of open forums, staff can come together and connect over shared interests, enabling individuals to build stronger relationships that may even extend into personal life. These forums can bring people together emotionally as well. In The Relationship Cure, Dr. Gottman says that creating traditions – such as sharing baby pictures, high school prom photos, travel shots, etc., on a staff bulletin board – can be fun and bring novelty to the office. It can give staff a chance to see each other from radically different points of view. He explains it like this: “Imagine seeing your political nemesis as a frightened two-year-old on a pony, or the office tyrant as an awkward teenager in braces and a powder-blue tuxedo. It [sends] the message that we were all innocent once, we were all vulnerable, and we still carry those parts of ourselves around every day… we don’t have to unravel our whole life stories to our coworkers, but it may help to reveal glimpses of our past from time to time.” Whether you create meeting spaces online or offline, take advantage of the opportunities they have to offer!

Birthday celebrations: Birthdays are great. Everyone has a birthday, so it’s a very egalitarian way to ensure that everyone is recognized and appreciated. Birthdays are an ideal opportunity to gather as a group and spend some social time with your coworkers – just remember to keep the focus on the person and not on their age (which can be touchy subject) and try to keep the festivities fairly short while still ensuring that there is time for casual conversation. 

Candy jars, open doors, and other invitations to “face time:” It’s well worth making an effort to be inviting in the office. Instead of isolating yourselves in cubicles amidst a flurry of official communications, keep a candy jar, an open door, or something else to signal your availability for real human interaction. You can even use the internet to deliver a message to this effect. (See? The internet is great!)

Holiday celebrations: The holidays can be a stressful time. But they also provide ample opportunity to forge bonds and learn more about your coworkers. There are all kinds of traditions that can allow work groups to take a break from the routine – whether you choose to have a party (maybe inviting partners or families of staff to mingle?), host a white elephant gift exchange (often a huge hit!), or do something entirely different (be creative!). A holiday ritual can be a wonderful chance to relax and connect.

Recognition for special accomplishments: Companies often have a system providing recognition for good performance (like Employee of the Month). Such a system can be augmented and improved by a more egalitarian process –  one in which staff nominate their coworkers for honors or send kudos to those who they feel are doing good work, rather than having a manager cherry-pick employees. Whether this recognition comes by electronic message or in physical form, making a public announcement can reduce the likelihood of recognition feeling like a necessary formality. Recognition can be accomplished via office email. Thanking individuals or teams for their contributions in a message sent out to the office can make people feel highly valued and respected – in other words, great.

If you want to provide motivation to a team tackling a challenging project (an incentive to help people stay unified, organized, and goal-oriented) it can  be rewarding and enjoyable to make light-hearted wagers. What does this mean? Dr. Gottman gives the example of a tradition at Microsoft, where managers have been known to promise to shave their heads if a development deadline is reached!

Keep in mind the value of spontaneous recognition. If you feel that the people around you have done well and are worthy of recognition, but there doesn’t seem to be any avenue through which their effort can be formally recognized, propose a spontaneous celebration! A good group leader will recognize an opportunity like this, but if they don’t, don’t let it slip by. If you feel it is appropriate, take the matter into your own hands and recognize people for the good work that they did – suggest a group outing for drinks or dinner, propose a toast, or make a speech! People pour their energy into the work that they do, often making great sacrifices for their jobs, and when they contribute, they want to be recognized. Don’t feel obliged to honor everyone all of the time – honoring those who do not contribute can deprive the whole ceremony of meaning – but be generous in the praise that you give, and give credit where credit is due. 

A culture of positive reinforcement will not only increase productivity but make people feel that their work is valued, fostering a warmer and more respectful office environment.

We hope that these suggestions have given you some ideas for connecting with your co-workers. Remember that giving them the appreciation and respect they deserve in the workplace –making yourself available, while drawing a clear boundary between work and home life – you can make great strides towards reaching a balance between the two, staying sane, and having time to nurture and strengthen connections between yourself and the ones you love.

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The Digital Age: The Workplace

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.