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AIM TEAM12/17/18 4:05 AM4 min read

Find Friends at Work: The Unexpected Benefits of Workplace Friendship

Most of us have friends who we rarely see and yet, when we do, find the encounter to be downright awesome.  I recently reconnected with just such a friend and was surprised at just how powerful our connection was after all these years.

Scott and I met in graduate school in 1998. With the flexibility of being students, our friendship went deep fast as we ran many miles together through the hills of Charlottesville as we worked on our PhDs. Later, we moved to D.C. the same summer and our friendship (and running) continued.  Eventually, Scott’s wife was appointed Supreme Court Justice of Palau. Given the geographic distance, the arrival of kids, and the rapid pace of our lives, we naturally drifted apart. Still, after 15 long years, I was still elated when Scott recently reached out again on a weekend visit to Boston. His message was fast and to the point: “I’m in town–last minute. Can we catch up this afternoon.” I rearranged my schedule and carved out time to meet up.

Meeting again was terrific. We reconnected quickly and dove back into the banter we once shared on a daily basis. Scott met my husband and children and got a brief glimpse into my current life. He later shared how energized he was by our friendship, and I agreed.  The encounter also left me thinking about the types of friendships we form in professional settings from graduate school to the workplace, about how and why these relationships energize us, and about how these friendships can be actively embraced as a way to support resilience in our professional lives.

The Business of Friendship

We usually don’t think about friendship in relation to business, but over the past decade, a growing number of researchers in fields ranging from leadership studies to business management to sociology and psychology have found that friendship is great for business. For example,  research has found that workplace friendships enhance teamwork and by extension, friendships enhance productivity. But teamwork enhancement is not the only potential gain.

Friendship in the workplace has also been found to increase job satisfaction (a 2017 Gallup poll found that friendships can boost employee satisfaction by 50%), enhance communication sharing, and increase workplace engagement. Added to these direct impacts are indirect benefits. For example, workplace friendships have also been found to reduce workplace stress and as a result, reduce stress-related workplace challenging including absenteeism and burnout.

To be fair, not all the research on friendships in the workplace is positive. A 2016 Study by two Wharton School scholars found that intense workplace friendships also need to be carefully managed due to the risks they raise (e.g., the tendency of workplace friendships to also result in the exclusion of team members).  

The question, then, is not whether or not workplace friendship are good–over three decades of research suggest that they are good for employees and organizations–but rather how we can effectively manage our workplace friendships.

How to Effectively Manage Workplace Friendships

  • Don’t build walls: Friendship bring people into your life, but unchecked, they can also exclude others. Stay tuned in to avoid unhealthy team dynamics. The key is to be generative. Well-managed relationships built rather than break trust.
  • Establish ground rules about what you can discuss at work: You may have just had a great weekend at the cottage with your workplace buddy and his family, but don’t assume that everyone wants to hear about your canoe trip, hike, or golf game when you arrive back in the office on Monday morning. Weekend details that you may think are harmless, can leave other team members feeling like you’re forming an exclusionary alliance. Agree to be inclusive and if your friend oversteps this limit, gently remind them that this is also about your brand, your relationships, and your credibility in the workplace.
  • Interrogate the basis of the friendship: When people become “friends” with colleagues just because they have no life outside of work, the friendship is already starting out on a weak foundation. Be careful to avoid choosing friends by default (because they happen to be in your life on a daily basis) and not by choice. Also, check yourself to ensure that you’re not simply gravitating to the familiar. We tend to like people with whom we already feel comfortable (e.g., people who share our established networks), but what about branching out?
  • Diversify your friend network: One of the best things about fostering friends at work is workplaces are often home to people who don’t already live in our community, share our established networks, and come from the same background. As a result, fostering workplace friendships can also be a way to intentionally diversify your friend network. If you do this, your workplace friendships will also help you continue to grow in ways you may have not yet imagined possible.