Your workplace is where you spend the majority of your day, so it’s not surprising that you might form strong bonds, even long-term friendships with your colleagues. Maintaining friendships with people at work is not only socially healthy, it’s also a great way to learn about areas of the business outside of your team, expertise, and skill set. Plus, it makes work a little bit more fun.
But workplace friendships can be tricky, especially between managers and employees, or senior and junior employees. In that scenario, no matter how you cut it, there’s always going to be a power dynamic in play. While these two hypothetical colleagues might be buddy-buddy outside of the office, that relationship will likely become more complicated inside the office, especially at companies with a more rigid culture or strict hierarchical org structure.
So, finding ways around that to make both the friendship and the professional relationship work is definitely something worth considering.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at what it means to form workplace friendships, how it impacts an organization’s culture, and how to establish boundaries that’ll ensure the friendship and working relationship can thrive.
Everything you need to know about workplace friendships
Let’s begin by examining the value work friendships can bring to organizations. Strong relationships, mutual respect, close-knit teams, a shared sense of humor: all of these benefit the overarching organization. But how?
Work friends are a lot more engaged
For starters, it can lead to higher engagement rates. According to a Gallup report, people with a “best friend at work” are seven(!) times more likely to be engaged in their work. Coming to work becomes less an obligation and more something to look forward to. It creates yet another reason to become invested in shaping the culture of one’s workplace.
It should go without saying by this point, but I’ll say it anyway: engaged workers are more productive, more satisfied in their jobs, and help create a more cohesive organizational culture.
Work friendships increase productivity
Although it may seem paradoxical at first, workplace friendships can also increase productivity. In another Gallup report, two-thirds of women said that the social aspect of their job was a “major reason” for why they work, and women who strongly agree that they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged productively (63%), compared with women who say otherwise (29%).
Here’s how this works according to David Burkus writing in Harvard Business Review:
“If you have friends in the company, it’s far easier to ask for help without fearing you’ll be judged a poor performer. In addition, having friends in the company, especially if they work in other departments, gives you access to information through informal networks you might not otherwise get.”
Access to new information, expertise, and ideas via informal networks is often underestimated. Think of all the times you’ve been asked by your HR team to attend some sort of company mixer, or assemble into interdisciplinary teams for a misguided team-building attempt. A lot of the time, our first reaction is to roll our eyes at this, not because we’re unwilling to meet new people, but because a lot of the time, people will just gravitate to the people they’re most familiar with from their own teams.
Forming friendships with colleagues outside of their immediate teams or department opens people up to sides of the business they wouldn’t normally be able to access. This can help create a more comprehensive understanding of what the company is working towards, how other departments operate, and reveal some of the organization’s pain points. In other words, it helps an organization’s people grow by learning about and appreciating each other’s experiences.
Some of the pitfalls of work friendships
Which brings us to the difficult portion of this article: how do we maintain the balance between a friendship and a professional working relationship so that all parties are in fact growing rather than getting into potentially career-ending (or friendship-ending) situations.
In addition to navigating the power dynamic of a manager-employee friendship, there's also something called emotional exhaustion. This happens when the emotional toll of enduring stressful friendships, while also dealing with the rigors of workplace stress, becomes too much to bear.
A recent CBC article elucidates this effect rather well:
“Balancing a full workload with the emotional needs of ever-present officemates may prove unsustainable. Our workplace friends are in a tricky position: they must constantly choose between their role as your buddy, and their role as an employee. This can lead to emotional burnout.”
So what can you do to create lasting relationships that withstand the challenges and pressures of the workplace?
Making work friendships work
Perhaps the most important step (and this rings true for any healthy friendship) is to establish and manage boundaries. Friendships can distract us from our work at hand, limit our focus, and worsen the effects of procrastination.
Establishing reasonable boundaries (and respecting each others’ boundaries) means managing how and when you hold non-work related discussions. Setting aside time to connect during your lunch break, or grabbing a coffee during downtime, is a good start. Limiting your interactions to face-to-face conversations, rather than incessant instant messaging, also mitigates the probability of distractions.
You might also save informal discussions about work (or particular people you work with) for after hours. Or better yet, avoid workplace gossip altogether.
Making friends at work is easy, and mostly good for you and your organization. Compartmentalizing your life into work and not-work is stressful and potentially unhealthy for you in the long term. By managing your friendships in a professional setting properly, you’ll have more fun at work, learn to relax a little, and begin to learn things about yourself and the organization you’re a part of.