Tackling the challenges of strained workplace relationships, as we emerge from the pandemic into a ‘brave new world’ of work

As we work our way through another long period of lockdown, with a tantalising light at the end of the tunnel, we also move to a new phase. We see our work evolving during the pandemic, from a focus on furlough at the start, then shifting to supporting clients manage redundancies, to now increasingly dealing with some of the very real human issues in the workplace (even if it’s a virtual one).  Clients are increasingly seeking our support on issues which have a clear link to strained relationships at work.  Whilst these are of course very human issues, they can trigger significant employment law issues too, particularly if left unresolved.

Some of these issues are relationship based, where remote working and the personal stresses and strains of the pandemic have eventually impacted on relationships with colleagues.   But are they also indicative of a permanent change in the world of work?  The pandemic has meant colleagues have had to work together with higher levels of trust, often with greater transparency of the individual challenges their colleagues face with childcare, shielding, elderly relatives, and many medical conditions or other issues that impact people differently.

Now that we’ve all engaged with these personal issues more openly, there may be no “going back” to how it was before, where personal issues were left outside work, whilst we stepped into what’s expected of us at work.  We know that many organisations were already encouraging the concept of bringing the ‘whole self’ to work.  But in the new Covid-19 impacted world, the importance of human relationships at work is more striking than ever, even though, ironically, we are more physically distanced than ever before.  In this new world, it also means that clear, compassionate and purposeful leadership is vital.

As employment lawyers we tend to only hear about workplace disputes when they have become particularly difficult. Often they have very similar origins so we thought it might be helpful to share our experiences from unravelling these problems.  Here are our suggestions for proactive actions all organisations could be thinking about every day:

– Be aware of the personal circumstances that may be impacting your colleagues, but don’t ask if you are not truly interested. Authenticity is crucial for clarity and understanding, and will be increasingly important going forwards.  Understanding a colleague’s personal circumstances is more likely to lead to empathy and support, rather than conflict.

– Make sure you really know what your colleagues think about the organisation. Good quality employee surveys, focused on key questions are helpful, but providing a safe space for genuine discussion about what’s happening in the workplace is invaluable. Be that in one to ones, team meetings or other processes – knowing what your people are thinking, before those thoughts bubble into something more challenging, is the best opportunity to address them.

– Communication at every level. Is it clear? Is the business purpose crystal clear? Does everyone know what is expected of them and why it matters? This is the most important element when we have to pick up issues as lawyers – it explains why a particular action was taken and provides the basis of a defence to all types of claim, including discrimination.

“Is the business purpose crystal clear? Does everyone
know what is expected of them and why it matters?”

– Truly live your values internally and externally. What is good for all is good for business. If you pride yourself on quality customer care, or ethical products, then treat your employees in the same way. Human beings bring claims because they are driven more by emotions than the law. Have you really reflected the organisation’s values in the process you followed as a leader or manager? Have you taken the worker on a clear journey – do they really understand why this is happening in both a business and human context?

“If you pride yourself on quality customer care, or ethical
products, then treat your employees in the same way.”

There are many predictions that as a society we will not be returning to business as usual. Remote working will play a much bigger part in everyday business life. With less interaction in the workplace, and more acknowledgement that colleagues have personal lives that impact on what they do at work, there is greater risk of relationships deteriorating.

More than ever, organisations need clear, purposeful and empathetic leadership as we move into this new period.

Our comment

With a pro-active, purposeful and empathetic approach by leaders, setting the tone for everyone else, we believe there will be fewer irreparable issues in working relationships. For those disputes that really can’t be resolved, managers will feel comfortable with the action they’ve taken and any legal proceedings can be managed with the best evidence.