Friendships at Work

Thursday 30thJuly 2020 is International Friendship Day so we thought that we would take a look at the benefits of making friends at work and some of the issues that employers may find that they need to manage.

“Friendship Day” was first proposed in 1958 in the South American state Paraguay. This was later taken up by the UN General Assembly in 2011 when they declared 30 July as an official ‘International Friendship Day’. The UN proposed that “friendship can inspire peace efforts between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals and can link up the communities”.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought this into sharper focus in recent weeks. The need to eradicate any form of racism has been amplified and we are all strongly encouraged to take positive action to find value in people regardless of colour, social background, age, gender etc. Positive relationships with the people around us, whether at work, in the pub or neighbours in our community, can enhance our lives and make us happier and more fulfilled in everyday life.

In my earlier career I worked in an organisation for over 20 years. I became good friends with many of my colleagues but working in HR brought about many challenges for me as I found myself in a position that I had to manage under-performance (and sometimes misconduct) of people that I regarded as friends. Indeed one time, I had to ‘get rid of’ an employee due to a personality clash with somebody higher up the chain. This employee was a good friend of mine, I had worked with her from day 1 and this highlighted to me just how complex having friendships at work can be, especially when you work in HR! However, in the main, friendships at work are incredibly important and many people meet lifelong friends or even their lifetime partners when at work – after all, when work is such an important part of your life and you are surrounded by likeminded people with similar interests, where better to meet and make friends with people?

Another reminder of how important friendship is to us at work has come into focus in recent weeks – working from home under government guidance during the Coronavirus outbreak has led many people to feel isolated. The lack of camaraderie can be felt very acutely when you are working on your own, it is even difficult to regain during video calls due to the loss of spontaneity and overhearing things being said that provoke you to join in. Making true friendships in a future where working from home becomes a new norm will be far trickier so before we all commit to doing it on a larger scale and on a more permanent basis it is important to look at the research into how both the individual and the organisation benefit from the social interactions when working from a shared work space.

Gallop Report 2010 highlights Social Well-being is one of the 5 essential elements of wellbeing. They reported “Our research revealed that 30% of employees have a best friend at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.”

David Burkus writing in the Harvard Business Review  in 2017 highlighted “Multiplex relationships, driven by having a lot of coworkers who eventually developed into friends, significantly increased employees’ performance, as judged by their supervisor. One possible reason for this was people seeking advice. 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.”

We know that some of the most creative ideas come from talking to each other at the coffee machine or when chatting whilst waiting for a meeting to start. These conversations are not usually just polite ways to pass the time, they are held between people who enjoy spending time in each other’s company. Friendships are an inevitable outcome of people spending time together regularly if they admire and respect each other for the value they bring to their working life. Some friendships become stronger and people will start to socialise outside of the workplace as well. With the advent of Social Media it has become far easier to stay in touch outside of working hours and to get to know each other on a more personal level leading to richer and longer-lasting attachments.

With all the benefits workplace friendships bring, there will always be negatives that need to be understood, monitored, and sometimes acted upon. Favouritism and nepotism, whilst not necessarily a legal form of discrimination, can be equally damaging on many levels. Employees that are denied opportunity to develop or be part of a workplace project because they are not ‘in favour’ can lead to disengagement and the effort and ideas that they might have brought to the situation will be lost. Productivity and creativity might suffer and ultimately absence and attrition might creep up.

In HR it is important to understand how to manage friendships (yourself), and how to help manage friendships between those that you work with.

Dominique Jones, in an article on The Balance Careers in 2019 titled 5 Ground Rules for Positive Workplace Friendships, explains “Workplace friendships pose challenges that private, social interactions do not experience. You have to strike a balance between your personal needs and the needs of the workplace for harmony and contribution” and poses some ground rules to manage these complex relationships:

  • Manage your boundaries (social interaction v distraction)
  • Include non-friends in work projects
  • Avoid office Gossip
  • Treat every member of your team equally
  • Identify your relationship needs (understanding colleagues’ needs helps to clarify your own role and how you can thrive in it)

Getting the balance between what is a healthy interaction and what becomes a distraction is not an easy task. But, identifying where the boundary lies, and consistently managing to this, can achieve the best of both worlds.

We spend so much of our time at work I am sure most people would prefer to feel happy and motivated and be able to have some fun during that time. So, I propose on 30thJuly make sure you recognise who the people are that make going to work that much more enjoyable and take a moment to appreciate them. And, if you will, commit to doing one small act of kindness to make somebody smile that day. Even better if it is somebody that you have not quite got to know yet – you never know, they could be a friend in the future!

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