Work relationships can be a great source of support and inspiration. As research shows, connections with coworkers can lead to greater productivity, creativity, innovation, and well-being.
But if you’re feeling disconnected from your colleagues, you aren’t alone. Interactions between close team members and collaborative opportunities shrunk during the pandemic, according to studies conducted by Microsoft in 2020. For all their benefits, Zoom meetings and virtual catch-ups simply aren’t the same as seeing someone five days a week, eight hours a day for several years, says Tess Brigham, a licensed therapist and career coach for high achievers.
Pandemic-related stress might have prevented you from being your best self with colleagues as well. Maybe you were harsh in an email or misinterpreted a teammate’s intentions.
Fully remote work also can “stifle our sense of group and team identity,” says Kira Nurieli, an organizational psychologist and CEO of the Harmony Strategies Group. We have a harder time recognizing each person’s strengths and weaknesses, predicting schedules and timelines, and sensing how personalities will mesh, Nurieli says. And that, she emphasizes, can trigger communication breakdowns and put extra stress on the team.
With fewer interactions, some of your work relationships might have suffered, but they are by no means doomed. Follow these steps to repair, rebuild, and reconnect with coworkers.
1. Be intentional.
When you’re facing a conflict, says Nurieli, the first step is to pause and reflect. Before speaking, or sending an email or text, “take a moment to clarify exactly what you are feeling and what you are needing.”
What do you want to say? Why? Is this helpful, or are you letting your anger run the show? Does it need to be said now, or perhaps another time would work better?
“This pause to critically analyze the conflict and strategize your next move can make all the difference in diffusing it, rather than exacerbating or igniting it further,” says Nurieli.
2. Own your part.
So often we focus on and stew about what someone else did to us. We might replay the interaction and recount all the reasons they were wrong. But what about your role? Brigham stresses the importance of reflecting on how your actions might have affected your work relationships.
What less-than-helpful things did you say or do that led to a work conflict? If it wasn’t a one-on-one argument, what behavior might have turned people away? As Brigham notes, maybe you weren’t invited to lunch because you just didn’t stay in touch with anyone. Once you take ownership of your actions, you can take steps, if needed, to improve rocky relationships.
3. Address it—with a positive spin.
Acknowledge the tension or issue with your coworker, so it doesn’t balloon and cause a bigger rift. But do so while expressing positive feelings about your relationship. In “Harvard Business Review,” researchers who reviewed nearly 300 psychology and management studies found that changing the emotional tone of a conversation is critical to reconnecting.
Doing so creates a supportive environment for both people to share their perspectives and serves as a reminder of why the relationship is important. This can be as simple as saying: “I know this situation is frustrating for both of us, but I know we can work it out,” or “Even though we disagree, we can find a good resolution.”
4. Take the reins.
As you’re returning to the worksite, it might feel easier to put your head down and laser-focus on learning your role, project, or process. After all, relationships are complicated, and this year has already piled on plenty of stressors. But don’t let the temptation to withdraw steer you away from repairing and reconnecting with your coworkers.
Instead, be proactive, says Brigham. Ask colleagues to lunch. Ask a coworker how they’re doing, and if they need help during this transitional time. These seemingly small gestures can turn around a faltering relationship.
5. Learn from it.
Conflict can be instructive—if we let it and listen. As you’re digging into the reason for a fractured relationship, think about what you can do differently in the future. This helps grow your work relationships, and it helps you grow as a person.
How might you be kinder or more supportive in certain situations? Can you benefit from being more direct? Do you need to work on not jumping to conclusions or being more patient? Do you need to sharpen your listening skills?
Reconnecting with colleagues might take time, says Brigham, but relationship rifts won’t last forever. By being intentional, compassionate, and proactive, you can rebuild your work relationships—and maybe make them even stronger.