OF THE PEOPLE

The guy in the next cubicle is close to kin

Ira Hobbs

Many of us spend more than a third of our adult lives at work. If you subtract the time when we're asleep and just look at waking hours, you can see the magnitude of jobs and careers on the rhythm of our lives. Some people actually spend more time with their co-workers than they do with their families.

I don't claim these observations as any striking new insight or revelation. But with the so-called human capital question hovering over the future of government employment so heavily, I've been thinking about them lately.

But stop and think about how much of your life is connected to your work and, by extension, to the people you work with. It becomes strikingly clear that co-workers are really a lot more than strangers who happen to inhabit the offices and cubicles surrounding our own.

In a real sense, co-workers comprise a sort of extended family. Often, certain co-workers are even closer to us than many of the relatives who are connected to us by blood. Even when co-workers aren't necessarily those with whom we socialize or refer to as friends, their day-to-day lives are deeply and intricately intertwined with our own.

When our co-workers' morale is high, our own work lives are much easier. Their low morale can make it much tougher for us to come to the office than it should be. When co-workers are in emotional pain'often for reasons we never know'it nevertheless impacts everyone who depends on them to get the job done.

When co-workers achieve, when they grow and develop, it strengthens us as well. By the same token, when they languish or when they are undervalued or unappreciated, whether within the office or publicly through a sensational hearing or nasty oversight report, we feel diminished as well.

I can recall times in my career where the thoughtfulness of co-workers had a lasting and important impact on me personally and professionally. During these times, knowing that people saw me as a person, rather than an employee or competitor, helped me get through difficult situations.

Understanding my connection to others reinforced my sense of purpose in the professional community and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward.

Though these observations may not be new, I think they merit contemplation'and action. What should we do?

First, understand that the people you work with are more than just co-workers. They are part of your extended family in that their lives are bonded with yours. What matters to them should matter to you.

Second, make more effort to communicate with co-workers, not just about the job or the latest events in the news but about those things in their lives that really matter to them. Don't play psychologist or counselor. Respect their privacy but demonstrate you care about them as people.

Ira Hobbs is deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.

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