sealPurdue News

April 1995

Close-knit co-workers may solve family-work tensions

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Two employees huddle near the coffee pot, discussing their evening schedules. At a desk nearby, co-workers chuckle over the funny things kids say. The boss smiles as she walks down the hall, content that she's running a productive office.

"Employers need not always be concerned that personal relationships at work interfere with job performance," says a Purdue University work and family expert. Shelley M. MacDermid, assistant professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies, says closeness among co-workers may be an important resource for both employees and employers.

MacDermid says a close-knit work environment may help workers resolve work-family tensions, which can interfere with productivity. "To the extent that employees are intelligent people who can make informed decisions about their lives and can work with others to facilitate that, it makes sense for businesses to encourage relationships," MacDermid says. "For example, the woman who has to take a child to the doctor can make informal arrangements with co-workers to cover for her, and later she can do the same for them.

"It's not that managers aren't helpful to employees, it's that they're not as accessible. When employees can ask someone sitting across the desk from them for help, it doesn't make sense for them to run down the hall and bother a busy boss."

MacDermid and co-researcher Margaret L. Williams, a Purdue assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources management, examined co-worker relationships, working conditions and family-work tensions among 60 mothers employed in customer service jobs in both small and large banks. The study was published in the journal Family Relations.

They found closeness among co-workers easiest to foster and most helpful in small workplaces. Employees in these instances perceived closeness as an advantage that may have partly compensated for negative factors such as low pay.

"Small may be beautiful when it comes to enhancing supportive co-worker relationships," MacDermid says. "In large work settings the layers of bureaucracy, formal rules and geography may hinder the looseness needed to allow employees to coordinate their own solutions.

"Managers may feel that if they loosen up, people will take advantage of that and become less productive. On the contrary, there are a lot of people who are very self-motivated, who want to be productive, and actually feel like work rules interfere with that."

MacDermid cites the example of one woman who handled credit-card accounts. She found it difficult to contact people on the West Coast during her normal work hours. The woman also had a small child who was let out of kindergarten in the afternoons. The employee suggested splitting up her day -- work in the morning, go home in the afternoon, and come back to the office in the evening. As a result, she could be with her child in the afternoon and make West Coast calls at a time when people there were reachable. "It was a win-win situation," MacDermid says.

"Workers know their jobs well and understand company goals. Given that, they are the experts on how to coordinate things. Companies should encourage closeness among co-workers but not dictate how that should happen. Employees need 'wiggle room' to coordinate with co-workers in ways that make sense to them."

Williams says family demands are concerns that businesses must address: "If you look at the long term, almost everyone will have some kind of family-work tension during their career, whether it be with regard to a spouse, child or elderly parent."

MacDermid and Williams say large companies can act more like small ones in fostering employee closeness. They suggest treating people fairly, communicating with them and meeting in groups. Williams says: "Don't physically distance workers and don't set up reward systems pitting employee vs. employee. Managers who give raises or promotions based solely on individual accomplishments belittle group efforts and hinder cooperation.

"Don't just categorize employees and think that you know what's best for them. Help people to be more aware of each other as individuals, and they will see how they can help each other."

MacDermid says: "Our observations suggest that interpersonal skills often are much needed but under-attended-to aspects of work life. Companies might find it beneficial to offer relationship and group-skills training to employees. That would allow more realistic negotiations among co-workers and facilitate supportive networks within the workplace."

Sources: Shelley M. MacDermid, (765) 494-6026; Internet,
Margaret L. Williams, (317 494-6564; Internet,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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