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Fostering Workplace Friendships to Improve Employee Experience

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Image: luckyraccoon - Alamy Stock Photo
After nearly two-and-a-half years of remote and flexible work, employees persist in bypassing free beer Fridays in favor of avoiding a commute and Zooming from home. However, many employees are still looking for ways to socialize and bolster work relationships. Now thanks to collaboration technology, this kind of workplace socializing can happen in the office, remotely, or anywhere in the world.
Work friendships can be what keep people engaged in their jobs. The New York Times recently ran a piece called "The Magic of Your First Work Friends," in which reporter Emma Goldberg shared that the percentage of workers who had a best friend at work had dropped from 22% pre-pandemic to 18% this year. To some researchers, this is cause for concern.
Gallup's argument for having a work bestie was simple: According to its own research, people who reported having a best friend at work were seven times more likely to be engaged at their jobs than the respondents who didn’t.
Then, Gwen Moran summarized research findings from virtual coaching platform BetterUp, which posited in its report, “The Connection Crisis: Why Community Matters in the New World of Work,” that 92% of "highly connected" employees report greater professional growth courtesy to the social fulfillment they feel on the job.
Workplace friendships can meet our very human needs for connection and community. They can push us to excel at our jobs by sharing great work habits, demonstrating effective soft skills, and providing daily role modeling.
However, workplace besties are not to be confused with our friend-friendships. Harvard sociologist Arthur C. Brooks, who studies what makes people feel fulfilled, identifies what he calls "deal friends," i.e., the people with whom you are friends because the arrangement is mutually beneficial:
There is one type of friend almost everyone has: the buddy who can help you get ahead in life, the friend from whom you need or want something. You don’t necessarily use this person—the benefit might be mutual—but the friendship’s core benefit is more than camaraderie … Expedient friendships might be a pleasant—and certainly useful—part of life, but they don’t usually bring lasting joy and comfort. If you find that your social life is leaving you feeling a little empty and unfulfilled, it might just be that you have too many deal friends, and not enough real friends.
And the pitfall to transactional friendships is that they don't provide the same joy as non-transactional friendships:
They feel incomplete because they don’t involve the whole self. If the relationship is necessary to the performance of a job, it might require us to maintain a professional demeanor. We can’t afford to risk these connections through confrontation, difficult conversations, or intimacy.
A body of research supports the idea that traditional corporate culture perpetuated inequalities, so the benefits of workplace besties were unevenly distributed in the workforce before. It's not hard to see a parallel to how opportunities to collaborate were unevenly distributed before the big work-at-home experiment of 2020, but the rise of collaborative work platforms offered boosts in intradepartmental connectivity and productivity, especially for people who didn't benefit from the before times' status quo.
The virtual workplace doesn't necessarily discourage workplace besties any more than it discourages collaboration. What it does is create new opportunities for people to connect.
It would be a mistake to assume that workplace friends are confined to those people in our physical space. While it's true physical proximity can help people connect, the research has shown the keys to rewarding, long-lasting friendships include stability, consistency and quality of interactions — three qualities that are not location-dependent but behavior-dependent.
Workplace leaders now have the exciting opportunity to cultivate rewarding workplace friendships through their hybrid work environments, which blend in-person and virtual friend-making opportunities. The benefits to figuring out how to combine organizational culture with the tools that assist employees in developing and sustaining those work-friendship habits are going to be just as profound to the way business gets done as watercooler chats and elevator pitches were.