The Role of Friendship at Work

All hail the “work wife”! According to Gallup, women who have a best friend at work are more likely to be engaged than those who don’t – and are more likely to stay in their job for longer.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. While we all have our support networks outside work, being able to let off steam with a peer who understands the people, culture and scenarios you face at work mitigates stress – and contributes to personal resilience. And yet, as simple as it may seem to make friends with people you’re in contact with 40 hours per week, many people find developing and maintaining them highly complicated.

While friendship in the outside world is generally a question of shared interest and mutual sympathy, work friendships can be fraught with trust issues – is it friendship or merely networking? – and the problems posed by hierarchy. And of course, today’s highly fragmented, hybrid world, poses a threat. According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, 59% of hybrid workers and 56% of remote workers reported they had fewer work friendships since the pandemic. So, what is the best way to develop and manage friendships at work?

The first step is to acknowledge that work friendships play by slightly different rules. For example, you may need to spend more time testing work friends for trustworthiness before sharing too openly. Equally, you might wish to establish more careful boundaries with someone in a more senior or junior role – and be careful not to share anything that might place you or them in a difficult position. As with any friendship, work friendships should be reciprocal, but not transactional. Use shared interests or experiences to make a connection and show an interest in their “real” life as well as the world of work – if this seems daunting remember, it can be as simple as asking how their weekend went and remembering to ask them about details from a previous conversation. Over time these sorts of exchanges can develop into a strong, supportive bond that is as meaningful as any other friendship.

And what about in our hybrid world devoid of “watercooler moments”? The reality is, we can’t always rely on serendipity to deliver the connections we need: a more intentional approach is needed. This can include setting up time (virtual or otherwise) to connect informally with people you encounter at work or making the most of time in the office by arranging to meet colleagues in person for coffee or lunch. Even just checking in with people over instant messaging, or sending friendly GIFs is a way to develop those all-important connections.

However complicated, friendship is a vital part of our support system at work. Employers can help encourage friendships by launching programmes like “mystery lunches,” and buddy schemes to help people get to know each other, as well as hosting regular social events to help people form connections.

Founder of HSM Advisory Prof. Lynda Gatton shares more on the importance of friendship at work in her most recent column for MIT Sloan Management Review. You can read it here.