Friendship is easy when you’re in your early 20s. Friends knock on your dorm-room door. They show up at your apartment, popping in a la Seinfeld with a bottle of wine. You pop in on them, too. You meet up at bars and (cheap) restaurants and at each other’s bar-and-restaurant jobs. You run into each other in the street and say, “Hey, come along to this thing.”
And then, so gradually that it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment, it all stops. One time I broke my own heart by going to visit my college town five years after I graduated. The streets were as busy with students as ever, but I didn’t know anyone there anymore. I felt like the guy waking up in the first scene of a zombie movie, discovering that all humanity has disappeared and shouting out forlornly to empty space, “Where is everybody?”
Knowing the answer didn’t help. Everybody had moved away for jobs or grad school. Some had gotten married and stopped hanging out so much. Others had started working long hours to climb some ladder they thought they wanted to climb. One or two had had kids and started returning calls at a six-month lag (understandable, but painful). There were some fallings-out, and there were some mysterious disappearances too, soldiers missing in action.
So I was overjoyed when, several years ago, my colleague Scott instant-messaged me from across our open-plan office. “I just got asked if I have a best friend at work,” he’d written, “and I said yes because IT’S YOU.”
My reply was near instantaneous. “<3 <3 <3!!!!!!” I threw in a link to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” for good measure.
Scott and I were part of a small, tight-knit group enrolled in a year-long training program. The program itself was interesting and worthwhile—a deep dive into stock-market analysis—but the reason I loved it was the hang. We studied together, collaborated on projects, and went to happy hour to hash it all out. There was always someone who wanted to go out for lunch or grab a coffee or tell me about a book I should read. The competitive elements of the job were enjoyable, enlivening rather than soul-killing, because everyone got along so well. Going to work was, for the most part, fun.
This situation was compelling enough it shaped my next couple of career moves, which were internal rather external; despite some occasionally tempting offers to leave, I’ve stayed with the company. And I heard the same thing from Baily Hancock, a full-time collaboration consultant and founder of work-advice startup The Career Experiment. When I asked her about the hang, she said: “Oh yeah. I’ve personally stayed at jobs far longer than I should have because I cared so deeply about my coworkers. Forty hours a week is more than I see any one of my best friends, so if you’re lucky enough to work with people you really care about, that’s a wonderful situation.”
My college friend Rae, who holds a high-stress job as a social worker, also told me that her workplace hang (particularly with her “work wife”) is crucial. “We met the day I started and she works in the same program I do,” Rae said. “We bonded over both being in the same field, and quickly became friends … we frequently go to lunch and dinner, and we go to arts events together,” as healthy ways of coping with the job stress.
We’ve entered into an era of well-deserved appreciation for the importance of the work spouse; Google brings up 19 million results for the term, including some fun memes (a disturbing number of which are about work spouses interfering with regular spouses). But the hang is equally important—perhaps especially so for the over-30 set, for whom marriage, kids, and professional demands can make it difficult to schedule after-hours socializing. You may remember Randi Zuckerberg’s rueful tweet: “Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time w/family. Staying fit. Getting sleep. Pick 3.” Well, the hang lets you pick four.
In 2013, Tom Hanks told The Guardian “I’ve only ever been in this business for the fun. I only came here for the hang.” Tim Heidecker, the comedian of Tim & Eric fame, recently mentioned Hank’s sentiment on his podcast, saying that the hang is the reason he’s in showbiz, too.
But not every workplace lends itself to the hang—which necessarily involves goofing off. Advertising and tech companies often recognize, even actively encourage it; hanging out is what all of those expensive beanbag chairs and espresso machines are for. But even some companies that pride themselves on being pleasant may inadvertently discourage idle chatter, forcing employees to shout celebrity gossip across a vast, echo-y office or not share it at all. For the most part, the hang remains a luxury benefit reserved for the creative class.
That’s too bad, because when your work situation is chill and friendly, you work better. Good ideas come out of idle chatter; like me, you’ve probably had the experience in which a friend starts yarning and as you listen, you arrive at a solution to a problem—painlessly. The outcome of the hang is that rare form of inspiration—the genuine kind that’s got nothing to with motivational quotes or the stilted, compulsory exchange of meetings and conferences. The kind that only grows out of respecting another person’s brain and liking the way it works.
That’s why the hang is also good for business. Work stops resembling a Kafkaesque hell (or the equally chilling vision of The Apartment, with identical desks stretching farther than the eye can see) and begins to feel like a collective enterprise everyone’s engaging in because they actually want to. Gallup has years of research suggesting that close workplace friendships are beneficial for employees and employers. “The development of trusting relationships is a significant emotional compensation for employees” as well as “a key trait of retention,” strongly associated with productivity and profitability, according to the research firm.
Having fun with people you like is the ultimate workplace perk. Once you’ve achieved a reasonable standard of living, there’s a certain soullessness to pursuing an ever-higher paycheck. Free pizza or massages are nice, but the novelty tends to wear off with time.
The hang, on the other hand, is a perk that keeps on perking. Combine work with friends and you don’t live with the constant, enervating misery of feeling like you haven’t seen your best friends in two months, and don’t know when you’ll be able to schedule a hangout session because your adult obligations have crowded that sort of thing right out of your life.
Instead, you retain the best part of being young—the feeling that you have lots of time on your hands, and friends right at your fingertips.