As human beings, we’re built to connect, at work as well as outside it. Understand the power of positive relationships at work and how work friendships can boost wellbeing, productivity, engagement and more.
Do most people have friends at work?
For every employee who believes in leaving work behind the minute they leave the building, there’s another who couldn’t be without their ‘work family’. And these days, research suggests, having positive work friendships is more important than ever.
The pandemic affected everyone and shifted the dynamics of workplace friendships in unprecedented ways. Many younger people had to start their careers in remote working environments, and employees and managers report that their previously close teams were challenged by long periods without face-to-face contact. Friendships though, are still seen as vital: Recent Gallup research shows that having a ‘best friend’ at work has become more important, even considering the dramatic increase in remote and hybrid work.
According to a study by BetterUp Labs, employees want more friends at work, and more than half would even trade some compensation for more meaningful relationships with colleagues. What’s more they see the organization itself as having a role in making this happen: 43% believe their company should be doing more to promote workplace connections.
But friendships have suffered during the pandemic. Jobsage found that fully remote workers now report 33% fewer friends at work, 66% of remote workers have not made a work friend, and Millennials (39%) and Gen Z (21%) are the generations most likely to have no friends at work.
This is echoed by a Wildgoose survey in the UK, which reported a small rise in those who didn’t have a friend in their workplace, from 37% in 2017 to 40%. But 15% said they would like a work friend, compared to 10% in the previous survey, suggesting that people feel the lack of positive work friendships more deeply as we recover from the pandemic.
Why are workplace friendships important?
Most full-time employees spend over 40 hours a week with colleagues, either sharing the same space or remotely. That’s often more than they spend with family and friends outside of work. Add to this the need to work together effectively on projects and decision-making and it’s easy to see how embracing the power of positive relationships at work isn’t just valuable for wellbeing, productivity and engagement – it’s potentially crucial to the success or an organization.
According to the Wildgoose survey, having friends at work boosts job satisfaction and retention, with 12% of respondents claiming they’re less likely to leave a company where they’ve made good friends. What’s more, 22% of employees now believe they are as, or more, productive working alongside people they see as friends, and 21% claim it makes them more creative. So having a good friend makes work more fun, as well as providing valuable support.
On the flipside, a lack of positive connection between employees can lead to loneliness, isolation and feelings of exclusion. This in turn, can lead to mental and physical health issues, stress and reduced performance, as well as problems with talent retention. One study showed workers who reported lower levels of workplace connection were three times as likely to leave, and nearly twice as likely to spend significant time looking for a new job.
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Positive work friendships can be a boon in a number of areas:
The Gallup survey shows how important friendships are to employee engagement. Friendships are strongly linked to profitability, health and safety compliance and staff retention. According to the study, employees with positive work friendships are more likely to get work done efficiently, innovate, share ideas, and engage customers and other internal team members. Plus, they’re more likely to recommend their employer to potential colleagues.
With engagement comes productivity. Work colleagues who consider themselves friends are more likely to support, encourage and further each other’s work and provide the right support. Less stress and better collaborative working makes for better problem-solving and sharing production-boosting initiatives. Friends are also motivators, as people feel mutually accountable to their support network.
When people are confident in sharing ideas and news, and feel that their voices are heard, they’re much more likely to contribute to team and partnership tasks. Creative industries rely on teamwork between partners and friends to bring forward new concepts and ideas. And the same is true for corporate and commercial environments, where friendships are forged between people who understand the same work challenges.
According to CNBC, 70% of employees say making friends at work is the most important element contributing to a happy working life. Friendship provides a sense of belonging, purpose and satisfaction, and this is as true at work as it is outside it. As new and more flexible ways of working become the norm, maintaining friendships is even more key to simply being happy.
Different types of work relationships
It’s not possible, or even desirable to be friends with everyone you work with. Positive connections can be made between people with very different personalities, skills or perspectives.
Jobsage defines work friendship as a relationship generated at work but also maintained outside the workplace. But there are other positive workplace relationships too. Provided there’s trust and mutual respect within a team, people will be able to work together effectively without needing to be close friends.
Pitfalls of work friendships
While work friendships are in the main, hugely positive, there are a few things to be cautious about:
Too many close personal friendships at work can be a distraction – it’s crucial to stay focused on the team’s goals
Friendships which are, or appear to be, exclusive can lead to others feeling left out. It’s important to keep everyone in the loop and communicate progress and decisions openly with all members of the teams
Friends who rely too much on each other may risk missing out on fresh perspectives or new ideas – it’s key to remain open
Friendships across different job levels may provoke suspicions of favoritism. So it’s important for managers to make sure any initiatives or decisions which affect others are transparent. That includes opportunities for career development
Boundaries can become blurred. Sometimes you may have to decide whether you’re dealing with a colleague or a friend
Work friendships don’t have to last forever. There may be times when you need to prioritize your own career, or support the career decisions of someone else.
Building positive relationships at work
Leaders and managers can’t force friendships, but there are a few things you can do to help foster a culture where friendships can thrive.
Focus on human connection – provide time and space for people to socialize. Marking birthdays, even if it’s just with a message in the chat, can make people feel they can celebrate with their colleagues.
Think carefully about how your onboarding integrates new team members. A buddy system can help people feel confident about meeting their new colleagues in the early days.
Be open about your own friendships in the workplace and model what you want to see – transparency and lack of favoritism.
Target your team building. Some activities will be about work-based activities, like cooperating better around tasks, but make time for activities that focus on fun, friendship and people getting to know each other. According to the Wildgoose survey, face-to-face meetings over drinks after work are still the most popular team building activity. And people still prefer in-person team building to anything presented virtually.
Keep communication channels transparent and open, so everyone feels they can access and share ideas and information.
Always allow time before and after remote meetings for more informal chats and feedback, where colleagues can offer each other support.
Look out for team members who may be struggling, encourage them to ask for help and respond quickly and offer support based on friendship, not just on management goals.
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