Management & Organization

It's proven: A good workplace performs better

Both in the private and the public sector it is the same song: Produce more with less money and also increase the employees' work satisfaction. And everything indicates that the problem isn't getting any smaller in the future. The competition keeps growing and prices drop. That is why productivity and efficiency is still one of the hottest topics among many companies. But the path to higher productivity and quality is not always “running faster”. Rather, it's about creating a common language, common goals and mutual respect.

The American professor, Jody Hoffer Gittell, calls this way of co-working relational coordination. In the early 00’s she conducted groundbreaking research that lead to the theory of relational coordination. In the book “The Southwest Airlines Way” from 2003 she examined which effect social relations have on our achievements. And her results are conclusive: When coworkers learn to respect each other’s jobs and work toward a common goal, the efficiency increases, the quality of work is improved and employees experience greater job satisfaction.

The method creates resonance in many organization and has found its way into many companies and governmental institutions.

What is relational coordination?

In order to understand what relational coordination is all about, we first need to determine what social capital is, since relational coordination is actually a way to strengthen the social capital of an organization.

Social capital is a resource in your company like your financial or physical resources. Your social resources consists of the value that is created between the people in your company. Or put another way, the added value you and your coworkers create when you're working together. That's why companies with a high social capital (i.e. that's working together well) creates better results than companies with low social capital.

 The social capital of a company depends on a combination of three factors:

  • Trust
  • Fairness
  • Interpersonal skills

If your company scores high on these three factors, it means that you trust each other, can and will collaborate and are capable of using the strengths of one another.

Advantages from relational coordination

  1. Workflow and assignment solution is more efficient
  2. The quality of assignment solution is higher
  3. Your coworkers become happier

Relational coordination helps supporting the social capital of your company, because it focusses on your working processes and on how your collaboration regarding work assignments is coordinated. Among other things it's about how your employees in every part of the organization are able to collaborate with each other across professional boundaries and hierarchy.

How to measure social capital

The world’s shortest questionnaire:

  1. Do you experience that management has faith in the coworkers doing a good piece of work?
  2. Do you trust the directions that comes from management?
  3. Are work assignments distributed in a just way?
  4. Are conflicts solved in a just way?

In its simplest form the social capital of the workplace can be measured as an average of the coworkers’ answers to these four questions. With five possible answers to choose from on each question (a scale from 0-4) it provides the ability of a score from 0-16 points. For instance, the average for Danish workplaces is 10.2 points. Below 8 is considered “very low social capital”. Above 12 points is “very high social capital”.


Gittell created the theory of relational coordination based on research she conducted in a range of American airline companies. One company, South West Airlines, stood out positively both according to efficiency, quality and coworker satisfaction. Since, Gittell has conducted similar examinations in the American health department and has, based on these examinations, identified a range of common characteristics in the ways coworkers coordinate and communicate.

Seven commonalities of a relational coordinated organization

  1. Common goal. Does the employees see and practice the goal of their own assignment work within the goal that is common across functions, departments and perhaps even organizations? Or are they primarily oriented towards living up to the goals of the particular function alone. And does management assess their performance based on common goals or rather goals for the particular function alone?
  2. Shared knowledge. In which degree do the employees understand how their own execution of an assignment affects the others’ execution of their part of the assignment, and the joint outcome of the work process? Or do they primarily view their own function without understanding their own functions’ correlation with the results of others and/or the whole?
  3. Mutual respect. To which degree does the employees feel that other professions respect their work as a part of the greater assignment solution, or do other professions look down on this function?
  4. Problem-solving communication. When a problem occurs (for instance when something unpredictable happens that breaks routine), do the employees attempt to solve the problem together or do they spend more time blaming others?
  5. Frequent communication. Is the communication between coworkers adequately frequent to make them able to act wisely? Or is the communication so frequent that it disturbs the operation, or so infrequent that the most important information is not passed on in due time?
  6. Timely communication. Is the communication timely for the employees to act wisely? Is it too late or too early?  
  7. Correct communication. Is the information passed on between employees during the work process correctly, so that it is possible to coordinate wisely, or is it often wrong?

According to Danish management- and organizational consultant Bo Vestergaard relational coordination particularly useable when there is:

  • Mutual dependency between the professionals’ execution of the assignment.
  • A high degree of unpredictability.
  • Time pressure.

The above are conditions that isn't found exclusively at airline companies and hospitals. Also manufacturing companies, schools, hotels etc. solves this type of assignments.

In order to improve the relational coordination Gittell suggests a few specific and practical solutions to the coordination problems that can even be easily implemented. One of the things that have been done, for instance in a Danish hospital, is to involve all professions (not just the doctors) in conferences and rounds. A simple solution to a problem that has been a challenge in the Danish health department where different professions have difficulty communicating to each other because of inflexible departments.

The efficient work processes we are able to improve and focus more on are, according to Jody Gittell:

  • Selection of team members. Focus on the coworkers’ ability to cooperate. For instance ask “What would you do in a (specific) situation, where your colleague disagrees with you?” The answer indicates the persons’ ability to cooperate.
  • Measuring the teams’ achievements. Focus on the whole teams’ achievements rather than a single persons achievements. It promotes the sense of joint responsibility and moves focus from finding “the responsible one” towards solving problems.
  • Proactive conflict management. Make sure to create processes for conflict management that makes it possible for coworkers to understand each other’s work processes even though they may not understand each other’s perspectives.
  • Invest in middle level managers. Train your middle level managers in giving feedback, coaching and focusing on facilitation. And make sure that there is enough time to available to both learn this and do it.
  • Focused work organization. Work on organizing work assignments so they emerge from your products or customers. In a hospital work assignments are organized in reference to the patient.
  • Flexible boundaries between functions provides a more flexible solving of work assignments. But remember to keep holding on to professional expertise.
  • Interdisciplinary coordination. An interdisciplinary coordinator can integrate work across functional boundaries by passing on information, making decisions based on the gathered knowledge or find out who should make the decision.
  • Expanded participation in team meetings. Make sure that representatives from every department participate in relevant team meetings. All participating parties must have something to contribute. For instance the round in the hospital, where every staff group is present.
  • Joint IT-systems. Facilitate coherence between IT-systems and functions.
  • Cooperation with suppliers. What happens before and after your customer or your product is at hand? Can you work together with suppliers and receivers on a coordinated effort?