After returning from maternity leave, Vivian Scott, an employee at a global technology company struggled to divide her time between meeting up with colleagues after work and spending time with her new baby.
She didn’t want to give up the hours with her daughter, but hearing how the group would regularly go out without her made her feel left out of important conversations.
“She was a priority for me,” said Scott. “(But) you don’t want to completely isolate yourself.”
There’s no doubt that tapping-into a work social group can be especially difficult once you head in to your 30s, 40s and 50s and take on hobbies and interests — and perhaps a spouse — that demand your time. It might feel near impossible if you have extra family responsibilities, such as taking care of elderly parents or small children.
But workplace experts say it’s critical to stay a part of the group, and even make connecting with others at the office a priority alongside your formal job duties. How a worker fits in to a firm culturally accounts for almost 90% of their performance on the job, according to RoundPegg, an analytics firm which focuses on corporate culture.
“Too often people wait until they’re stuck or the organisation restructures and then they realise they’re not part of any network – formal or informal,” said Jane Horan, a Singapore-based organisational development and inclusion expert.
The main reason: there’s a less frivolous side to all the socialising with colleagues that goes on at work and after hours. Office cliques aren’t just a way to pick up on the latest workplace gossip. They provide a vital source of information for ambitious employees who want the inside track on how to progress their careers and who want to stay on top of the pulse of the company.
Yet, even as executives emphasise the importance of interaction between colleagues and more workers are navigating global teams, some of the efforts to achieve that have also made feeling left out of the group more common, in part because it’s more obvious.
Social media makes it easier to spot co-workers who spend time together outside of the office—and also makes it clearer who is more isolated or left out. And more companies are moving to open office plans, making it inevitable that some feel excluded when, say, overhearing others’ lunch plans.
For her part, Scott soon realised that to stay part of her office clique, she would have to make an extra effort. So she decided to spend at least 30 minutes a day either speaking to colleagues during lunchtime or treating them to coffee before work.
“There are plenty of things you can do [about it] from 8 to 5 [o’clock],” she said.
Here’s a look at what you can do if you feel excluded:
Draw up a masterplan
If you’re new to a company or have recently relocated, find a well-connected “informant” that can help introduce you to the company culture, said Yih-teen Lee, associate professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona.
“If you can build up a friendship, you can integrate much better,” which is especially important if you’ve moved abroad, said Lee, who studies multinational organizations.
Try to assimilate within a group by getting to know people individually and then drawing connections, suggests Ben Waber, president of Sociometric Solutions, a management services firm in Boston. For example, if one colleague tells you about a project she’s thinking about, and you learn another colleague is interested in the same thing, connecting the two could help you more easily assimilate into the group.
Be patient, not presumptuous, about forming bonds. And don’t invite yourself to an event. “It puts [colleagues] in an awkward position and they might actually say no,” Scott said.
When family commitments continually get in the way of happy hours, company dinners or sport events it can be especially challenging to bond with colleagues on a social level. Scott, who eventually left the company she worked for to pursue a private mediation practice and later write a book, Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies, suggests hosting an event on your own, such as a barbecue at home rather than waiting for an invite from someone else.
“Bring in your own interests,” she said. And maximize your time by only attending work events that draw the most people, she added.
In some locales, this may prove more difficultFor example, staying out late in Japan is a must, but workers in Switzerland can be distant to outsiders and post-work drinks may happen less often.
“There are different degrees of what’s considered normal,” said Lee, spent seven years in Switzerland after living in China. He was surprised by what he felt was a cool reception from colleagues.
Assessing your needs
Be purposeful about how you spend your time at work and designate which group or department you’re looking to get to know better.
As you socialise with that group, don’t simply talk about work but share some details about your personal life to help foster deeper connections, advises Graber. Building those connections will make it easier to communicate during high-stress work situations. For example, a superior who knows you have small children or an elderly parent may be more accommodating when asked for a last-minute sick day.
“Mixing both [topics] is important,” said Graber. “But if you never talk about work then it’s not really going to buy you anything.”
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