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Getting the most out of your workforce isn’t all about targets and good hires, says Susanna Quirke, from Inspiring Interns. For a workplace to thrive, it needs to be managed correctly – and nowhere is this most necessary than in the case of office politics. When antagonisms, low motivation and negative work cultures affect employees, low productivity is quick to follow.Learn to recognise the symptoms of the most common workplace social issues, and how to deal with them in the most effective way possible.

Gossip and rumours

It would be a strange office that didn’t have a grapevine culture, where information wasn’t passed on and co-workers regularly talked about behind their backs. Humans are naturally inquisitive; if you’re spending forty hours a week in the same room with the same people, you’ll be naturally interested in learning what you can about them.

Nevertheless, even the chummiest workplace can become oppressive if innocent chinwaggery progresses to all-out slander. Gossip thrives in secretive, cliquey environments. While you can’t stop your employees from chatting to one other, you can keep things light by promoting open communication and friendliness.

Organise social events with the aim of uniting your workforce. Even if it’s just Friday drinks down the pub, a good old bonding session can work wonders and help build bridges. To avoid clique culture, try adopting an open-plan office layout. Not enough? You can institute desk shuffles to get people talking to different colleagues on a daily basis.

Finally, if things get too much and your gossip stream becomes a flood, identify the main culprits – there are usually one or two – and take them aside. Give them a calm but firm warning that cruel gossip is a form of workplace bullying. That should shut them up.

Lack of discipline

Are your underlings regularly arriving late and leaving early? Is work of a low standard being turned in after the fact? Are more of your workers absent at any one time than actually at their desks?

Maintaining discipline shouldn’t be something any manager needs to do. But in certain situations and workplaces, it becomes necessary. The key to dealing with such disruption is to keep things fair. If you foresee or perceive an issue with employee regulation, ensure that rules are in place before major problems occur, and then apply those rules indiscriminately. That means that if the rules apply to the intern, they apply to the CEO – and vice versa.

All companies should develop a company behavioural policy and compile an according document to mail out to new and current employees. This way, when an infraction is committed, workers cannot use ignorance as an excuse.

If you think enforcing the rules yourself will cause more problems than it solves, appoint a third party or trusted current employee to act as an HR representative. Workers should feel free to report issues to them as and when they occur.

Demotivation

Motivation is an ephemeral concept but an important one; you either got it or you don’t. Poor motivation is a classic cause of low productivity, output and missed targets. The good news is, it’s also a relatively easy problem to solve.

Demotivation occurs when an employee feels pessimistic about their future in the workplace, and thus unwilling to invest energy and time in it. Such pessimism is usually the result of job insecurity, lack of development, lack of clear career progression, conflict with colleagues, overwork or underwork.

The best way to combat such uncertainty is, of course, to attack the root of the problem. Ensure that clear goals are set for your workers and, when they achieve them, obvious rewards. Put progression structures in place so that all employees can see a tangible future with your business. Keep careful tabs on how workers react to new tasks; keep them challenged – there’s nothing duller than a job you could do in your sleep – but not overly so.

If you think that your employees aren’t fully invested in their roles, take a good long look at your company. Usually, the problem is with the management.

Individual antagonisms

Of course, there are times when employees cause problems among themselves. Personality clashes, ideological differences and simple run-ins can be a sources of infinite unhappiness when you’re forced to share an office or even a desk with the offending personage. Urge any clashing workers to talk through their issues; usually, problems can be sorted out privately.

If arguments prove difficult to resolve, it’s time to intervene. Begin with an informal mediation. If the situation is serious enough, it may even warrant an internal investigation. Whatever you do, don’t let employees remain at loggerheads. Chances are that one will be forced to leave, and you’ll have the expense of a fresh hiring process on your hands.

Occasionally, an employee becomes distracted or problematic thanks to issues at home or with their health. In these cases, it is not appropriate and often not preferable for you to become involved in their personal issues; you’re their boss, not their therapist. It is, however, important to understand how such problems might affect their work. Call an informal meeting with your employee and talk to them – empathetically – about their concerns as well as your own. Be willing to make concessions, provided you see future improvement in the situation. With luck, your employee will be grateful for your understanding and, with some clear boundaries set, overcome their personal obstacles.

Social problems in the office can account for most cases of workforce unhappiness, as well as related issues of high employee turnover and low retention. Letting social issues simmer does your business few favours. Dealing with them professionally will.

By Susanna Quirke, graduate jobs writer for Inspiring Interns.

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