HR Management, Strategic HR

March Madness Matters in an Employee-Centric World

by Morag Barrett, Founder and CEO, SkyeTeam

Employee engagement is a hot topic today. And understandably so: Gallup estimates employee disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion annually. It’s a fairly basic concept, and we all get it: Engaged employees are good for business—and perhaps most compellingly, bottom lines.

march madness

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Business is built on relationships, whether with employees, with customers, or with other key stakeholders. You cannot be successful in business, or in life, unless you are also successful in cultivating the personal and professional relationships on which these depend.

The organizations and individuals who successfully navigate this new work order are those who are paying attention to how work gets done—by building effective relationships.

And no, there’s not an app for that.

Building relationships still happens the old-fashioned way—off-line, one conversation, and one interaction at a time. It’s the human-to-human connection from which everything else builds.

There’s Nothing Mad about March Madness

We are about to enter what is referred to as “March Madness” in the USA. From the middle of March through the first week of April millions of Americans will be completing their brackets for the NCAA Tournament and 68 teams will be participating for the honor of winning the NCAA Championship. If you are still confused, it’s basketball.

There are global equivalents, such as picking the Grand National Winner (a much easier name out of a hat approach, with a 1 in 40 chance of winning), predicting the World Cup or Premier League Soccer Championship Winners (a little harder), or the outcome of any number of other major sporting events.

The 20th-century mindset to this might be to dismiss all this bracket mongering as a waste of time, an unproductive distraction from the real work of business. The increase in reported “sick days,” extended lunch breaks, and missed meetings to allow for watching the games, discussing the tournament, or updating the remaining brackets may reinforce that attitude.

However, before you try to stop the shenanigans I encourage you to pause and observe the positive impact of March Madness. No, I’m not going crazy; there is in fact, method to this madness!

What appears on first blush as a pure time suck can have a huge and potentially positive impact on morale and engagement.

It’s no surprise that one of the key questions in Gallup’s engagement research is “Do I have a best friend at work?” Effective professional relationships are not just a nice to have, they are a need to have. There is a clear correlation between a positive answer to this question and higher employee engagement, productivity, and retention.

Google began an interesting study in 2012, Project Aristotle, to examine its high performing teams and determine exactly what made them so great. They had previously taken the ages old tack of “put smart people together—that’ll work” or “put the introverts together” or “put the extroverts together.”

Upon closer inspection, this hadn’t proved to be the case at all.  They realized they didn’t know why some teams excelled, while others flamed out.

As it turned out, it was the quality of the personal relationships that made the difference. What I, in my first book, call Ally relationships are trust based, with emotional connection, where team members are authentic, take informed risks, speak candidly—and ultimately, deliver higher quality results.

Seems like these might be ideal traits that would help pick a winning bracket, or a winning organizational team.

Connect or be Disconnected

We spend more than 40% of our time with work colleagues. From studies on the human brain, we know that our instinct is to put up defenses with people we don’t know—unless of course they seem “like us.”

None of us achieve success alone—the world of work is probably the biggest team sport any of us will ever take part in—and yet, at times, it can feel like our coworkers are on the opposing team rather than playing on the same side and for the same company.

Building and deepening relationships and connections, and paying attention to the quality of these relationships, is crucial to future-proofing your career.

In researching our new book The Future-Proof Workplace, Dr. Linda Sharkey and I identified relationships as one of the six critical factors of change transforming the workplace today, and is critical to personal and career success.

This is not your father’s workplace. Traditional employees make up a smaller proportion of the overall workforce than ever before. Contractors, consultants, and other “gig economists” are showing up in larger numbers and are legitimately part of these organizational cultures. In many organizations, these folks are still kept at arm’s length. Training, social events, and access to information are usually unavailable to the flexible worker. The result is a segment of “have-nots” and potential “will-nots.”

With predictions showing that these flexible workers will comprise more than 40% of the workforce by 2020, the ability to quickly form respectful, enjoyable, and productive workplace relationships is a key for career survival.

In the past, career success was traditionally achieved through personal drive, ambition, and skill. More and more, success will be achieved through the subtle but high-value combination of mastery and connectivity.

In the “new work order” recruiting is both digital and social, personal and impersonal. It’s not only who we know that’s important, it’s who knows us and who can find us that will be a key determinant of our future success.

Here’s the harsh reality: you must intentionally connect or risk becoming disconnected. The relationships we build and maintain with others is how we avoid becoming isolated and fragmented at best; and at worst, obsolete.

Damaged Relationships, Damaged Bottom Lines

Let’s be honest. Work is at the center of most of our lives. It’s the necessary evil for many that allows them to pay the bills. And for those exceptional few, work is a place where we thrive and actually look forward to being. (Yes, those scenarios exist!)

In fact, we propose that the reason so many people dread work is because they’ve avoided the important step of cultivating good relationships in the workplace.

Work is where we form many of our most treasured relationships, whether it’s friends and colleagues or potential spouses. It’s also where we uncover and refine the relationship we develop with ourselves. When this all goes well, we thrive and creativity and innovation abound. We feel connected when we’re adding value and contributing expertise to a positive result. We have purpose.

On the other side of the coin, when our relationships at work flounder, we can find ourselves stressed, withholding our knowledge, and taking those stressors home to our families and friends. When our professional relationships are damaged, this invariably impacts our personal relationships.

A winning workplace relationship doesn’t just “happen” by chance—and neither does an ineffective one. When people move to a new job, it’s never really about the money. People don’t leave companies, they leave relationships.

Damaged relationships impact productivity, affect the culture, and ultimately, damage bottom lines. Welcome to the social contract, where relationships matter.

A Workplace Where We Want to be

We child-proof our homes, but we have yet to future-proof our offices.

Design your workspaces well and you’ll have a 21st-century environment where people want to be, in which people can thrive. Design them poorly and you have the office of the 20th century, a destination employees have to go to.

The office of the past was designed for the sedentary desk-bound worker who arrived, sat at the same desk all day, and then left for home. The office of the future has to be designed around the active worker, encouraging people to get up and move around; whether it’s standing at their desks or treadmill desks, a future-proof office supports relationship cultivation and chance encounters with teams in other parts of the building.

The office needs to transform from a location where work is done to a destination that supports how it’s done—from where we have to go, to somewhere we want to go. We must rethink our attitude toward work and the design of workspaces and how we design our professional relationships at work.

Embrace the Madness

Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at March Madness? Using this lens, you can pay attention to the subtle dynamics at play in your team’s relationships.

It turns out that this madness is not as mad as I first thought. Instead it’s an opportunity to boost morale, strengthen professional relationships, and create a healthier work environment. It’s a Cinderella story!!

Morag Barrett Morag Barrett, MA HRM, Chartered FCIPD, is the author of The Future-Proof Workplace. An accomplished speaker and executive development expert, she is the founder of SkyeTeam, with 25+ years of experience in senior executive coaching and developing high-impact teams and leadership development programs across Europe, America, and Asia, she intimately understands the challenges of running a business and managing people. Happily established in Broomfield, Colorado with her husband and three sons, for fun, you can find Barrett playing in the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra, where she is the principal bassoonist. In case you were wondering: her name is Scottish, and means “great.” Find Barrett on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.