Imagine this: Someone you recently met invites you to dinner at his home, and you accept. The following Wednesday evening, you arrive at the agreed-upon time. As you were expecting, your host opens the door and lets you in. He then points you in the direction of the dining room and walks off in the opposite direction, telling you he will return. Slightly taken aback by this lack of hospitality, you wander around and eventually find the dining room.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, you get tired of standing and decide to sit down at the table. A woman and two small children are watching television in a nearby room. They can clearly see you waiting, but they don't acknowledge your presence. One of the children stares at you for a few moments, providing a glimmer of hope, but then walks right by you on her way to the kitchen and doesn't say a word.
Thirty minutes after your arrival, the guy who invited you to dinner has yet to return. Even though you normally would have walked out by this point, the entire scene is so bizarre that you stay around out of curiosity, wanting to know what's wrong with this family.
Then, when you thought you had seen it all, your host finally enters the room carrying a stack of books and manuals. He sets them on the table and pleasantly says, "Let me know if you have any questions" and leaves the room. You start to peruse the manual on top and see the title: How to Use Your Gas Range. The next manual is titled: KRC 542: Microwave Oven. The rest of the stack contains a few standard cookbooks.
This scene, albeit fictional, is comparable to what happens to many new employees when they enter their new workplace; they are essentially given directions on how to cook their own meal and then left alone. Just ask Stephen, a project manager who thought he had finally found the ideal job. Even though his new position required moving to a city more than 500 miles from his hometown, Stephen jumped at the opportunity after talking to the recruiter and reading the job description. He was sure he would love the job, and he was full of excitement when he arrived.
On his first day, someone from Human Resources showed Stephen to his office, left him with a couple of product manuals, and told him to read them. During his first week, that was all he did -- peruse company manuals. Each day, as the noon hour neared, Stephen quietly hoped someone would ask him to join them for lunch in the company's cafeteria so he would not have to eat alone. No such luck. No one even stopped by to chat or help him get acquainted with his new job and new city. The following Monday, he called in "sick." He did the same the next day. Then, on Wednesday, Stephen submitted his resignation after 10 days on the job.
This story illustrates why it's critical for people who are new to a group to get plugged into a network of potential friends right away. Once these personal connections are made, they usually last. The best online and distance degree programs require new students to spend a few intensive weeks together before they begin communicating virtually. Once you have gotten to know someone face-to-face, working with them at a distance can be very effective. Without these personal connections, you would be working with relative strangers. [See "Getting the Most Out of Remote Workers" in the "See Also" area on this page.]
One professional services company I work with brings a group of 15 to 30 new associates together in one location every few months and provides them with two to three weeks of learning and socializing. They take the group to dinners, sporting events, and other area attractions. This builds bonds with coworkers that last for decades -- even when they go back to work in different cities. They are wired into a network from day one. According to our research, organizations that help new employees make friends could double the chances of those new employees being satisfied at work.
Other organizations have less formal programs that pair new employees with mentors or advisors who think about the new employee's personal and professional growth. A division of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble requires new team members to spend a full hour talking with each person on the team they are joining. The employees are specifically directed to talk about their friends, families, hobbies, and other outside interests -- any work-related topics are off limits for this initial hour. As a result, members of the team build trust and relationships much faster than they had in previous jobs. And when questions or issues arise later, it is much easier for new members of the group to ask those questions. In the words of one team member, "This made it much easier for me, as a new person, to get involved and seek advice."
Plugging in before meetings
Regardless of whether you love or dread meetings, they do provide a venue for getting to know your colleagues. However, when a meeting starts, most of us have a tendency to jump right into things. I am as impatient as anyone, and I cannot stand meetings that run unnecessarily long. But whenever you have new people in the group -- or have not met for some time -- it pays to open things up on a different note.
A previous manager of mine, Don, started every meeting with a brief activity. He thought people should get to know each other before diving into an agenda. The first thing Don would do is distribute a few pieces of paper to each person in the room. Every sheet had the following headings printed across the top: Name, Hobbies, Personal Success, and Professional Success. Don would then open the meeting by asking everyone to answer these four questions:
- What name do you prefer to be called?
- What are one or two of your favorite activities or hobbies outside of work?
- What is one recent personal success you have had?
- What is one recent professional success you have had?
At first, this seemed a bit odd to me, and perhaps a waste of time, but it certainly helped us become acquainted and settle in before we tackled pressing work topics. It even gave me a refresher course on people's names. After attending a few of these meetings, I began to notice other colleagues who shared my interests, which led to follow-up conversations after the meeting. A couple of my strongest workplace friendships started off this way, and it's unlikely we would have connected in the first place if Don hadn't kicked off every meeting with a few good questions.
This is one of the most common ways a vital friendship is formed at work -- discovering a coworker with common interests or beliefs. The best workgroups we have studied engage in passionate conversations and e-mail discussions about non-work topics. This helps the group bond and makes it stronger.