Eeeesh! I know the title is a pretty controversial take on work-culture today. One Google search of 'family work culture' spits out over 3 million search results, most of which are scattered with words like, 'toxic', 'dark' and 'trap'. Look, I don't totally disagree with the notion that viewing and treating your colleagues and employees as like-family can lead to a toxic work culture. Especially under the wrong leadership.
I acknowledge you can't put your family on a performance plan and it certainly takes much more than three strikes to fire a family member. Despite the fact I'm sure at one time or another we have all wished we could, although emancipation is always an option.
Might I add, the Freudian slip of accidentally referring to your boss as Mummy or Daddy will always be embarrassing and the morality of having a 'work hubby/wife' is questionable at best when you have a legal one at home. But, I can't help but find myself feeling comforted that the people I spend most of my waking hours with are like family to me.
Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge that everyone's relationship with 'family' can be vastly different, especially when we take into account the cultural differences between us and our colleagues, which are incredibly personal.
I believe there is a balance to be had and to completely tarnish the notion of cultivating a family-like team feels like we could be missing an opportunity to banish the 'Sunday Scaries' forever and create fulfilling purpose-driven work for ourselves.
As mentioned previously, every family is so friggin' different, but what they all have in common is that they are a group of people, bound to one another by blood or law. Applied to a workplace, team members are mutually connected by one employer, sharing the goal to keep the business thriving to the best of their ability. So why not extract the best bits from one and apply it to the other?
Arguments against using a 'work-place-family' metaphor cite it as toxic because it 'forces a sense of loyalty'. When a family member needs something or asks something from you, you may feel like you can't say no. But if you truly look at your colleagues as one of the same family, being honest and transparent about how your current workload is affecting you, should be a way to build a healthy and well-balanced work environment, right?
However, families aren't honest all the time. We've seen Jeremy Kyle episodes where someone's mum's been sleeping with their boyfriend. Or on the less extreme end of the scale, maybe some of us have lied to our grandmas about why we couldn't call her back.
Honesty isn't always guaranteed amongst real families and it's not always encouraged in workplaces. For example, many workplaces still view open salaries as taboo or something that should be shared on a need-to-know basis. We've all said yes to a project that was too much to handle out of fear of loss of opportunity or respect.
If team members feel like they can be really honest about where they're at with their workload, and be able to say 'not today' or 'not this month' without fear of judgement, this can lead to a happier and healthier environment where people can achieve a good work/life balance, instead of feeling like to advance themselves they must always say yes.
Indeed, encouraging a family-like work culture can lead to incredibly dysfunctional dynamics, much like real families, but dysfunction isn't reserved solely for family-like relationships. You don't have to view your colleagues as relatives to be a c**t.
I see the power in the harmony and healthy bonds that come from being 'like a family' and applying them to a work context to increase employee engagement and job fulfilment at a time when company culture is eroding.
Here are 3 elements of a family-like-culture I think we can extract and inject into work life, in a healthy non-dysfunctional kinda way:
1. Meaningful relationships
Families are important because we only get one of them, and most of us only have one job, with one group of people we call our colleagues, at a time. Much like our families, this group of people is totally unique and can lead to a group dynamic you wouldn't usually place yourself in. You pick your friends, not your family and unless you're in charge of hiring, you don't pick your colleagues either.
We should embrace the mismatched melting pot of different characters and personalities. This group of people offers you different perspectives you may not already possess in your current friendship group or family - who more than likely share many of the same life experiences as you.
At the very minimum, you’ve got to get your arses in the office. Since 2020 the rate at which employees are going into the office has decreased from an average of 3.8 days to 1.4 days a week. A big loss for company culture on the whole. How can a workplace build a culture where employees feel valued and happy when they cease to be in one room together? Getting to know one another on a deeper level fosters an environment where you can build inside jokes, offer advice and share life experiences. Trust me, you’ll enjoy going to work a whole lot more when you have more meaningful work relationships than when you're sitting on the edge of acquaintance-ville with Tim from the Sales team.
2. Instil a sense of belonging
The first time in someone's life they feel a sense of belonging, more often than not, is within their own family. A group of people you are automatically assigned to upon birth, whether you like it or not! However, feeling like you belong with those people is not always a given.
Instilling a sense of belonging in the workplace is necessary for bringing out the best of everyone at work and feeling like you belong amongst your colleagues is always going to be net beneficial, from a business perspective and a personal one. When everyone feels they belong to a single entity, they will more effectively work towards the company goals. When they feel they are contributing to something they belong to, they will work harder than if they see it as a strictly transactional relationship.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel like you belong in every space you enter in life, but if you don't feel a sense of belonging with your own relatives - the next best thing is feeling at one with your teammates, who you spend most of your time with, on the goals you spend most of your time and energy contributing to.
3. Shared values
If you’re not proud of what you’re contributing to, however, your sense of belonging may be undermined. The way jobs and careers are perceived nowadays differs massively from the way they used to be. In a world so consumed by social media where people have unprecedented access to each other's lives, both personally and professionally, thanks Linkedin! People want to work for a company whose values reflect their own. Yep, going to work for Shell or Coca-cola isn’t as sexy as it used to be. When employees feel like they identify a part of themselves in the company and are proud of the company mission they are far more likely to work harder to further the cause and stay longer.
Find a company you are proud to be apart of and see yourself reflected in its mission with values that match your own. Much like you and your immediate family, you probably hold similar values.
So my fellow 9-5 soldiers, you may not be living your dream life and I don’t propose to know how to help you get there. But at the very least I want to help you see that work doesn’t have to feel like work. It involves extracting the productivity and enjoyment that comes from the harmony of respecting your colleagues like family, trusting them like a sibling and wanting them to win.
In a world where company culture comes second to the convenience and the ease of working from home, if you want to get more out of your work the equation is quite simple, you need to put more of yourself in work. Open yourself up to your colleagues, embrace being in the office and find an environment and a cause you're proud to contribute to.
Trust me they’re out there! I found one :)