Better off as friends?

Are work friendships a good idea?

What the research says about finding the line between coworkers and friends
Are work friendships a good idea?
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You probably were told not to get too personal at work at some point in life; not to be friends with your coworkers. Yet research from Wildgoose shows that 57% of people believe having a good friend at work makes their job more enjoyable. But Gallup found only 2 in 10 strongly agree that they have a best friend at work. Where’s the disconnect?

Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, sees the benefits. She spoke with Microsoft on the topic of workplace friendships. “The research is pretty clear that workplace friendships have enormous benefits,” King says. “Having social support from coworkers reduces stress, helps reduce burnout, improves efficiency and productivity, and increases employee engagement.”

There’s no shortage of topics people are comfortable discussing with their work friends: love life (58%), health issues (53%), financial issues (33%), and conflict with other coworkers (64%) were among the most prevalent.

While workplace friendships should be navigated with care, they’re critical to fully integrating into your organization’s culture and achieving fulfillment in your role.

Work friends: what the research says

In a survey of 3,000 Americans at work, 82% of respondents indicated they work with at least one person they consider a friend, and the average number of friends was 5. Of those with friends at work, 29% said they would describe at least one of these colleagues as their “best friend.”

Research about the benefits of workplace friendships must be broken out into various categories because general feelings differ based on multiple factors. For example, women are more likely to have a friend in the workplace, which has measurable benefits for the organization. A Gallup study found that women who claim to have a best friend at work are “more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with those who say otherwise (29%).”

When it comes to age groups, younger people wish they had more work friends. Twenty-three percent of people under age 25 say they are lonely in their workplace and want to be friends with colleagues. As one might expect, the more senior a person’s role, the more friends they are likely to have at work. The exception lies with executive leadership, 76% of whom report difficulty connecting with their teammates.

The quality and quantity of workplace friendships also depend on the industry in which people work. For example, those in the transportation industry report having an average of 10 friends, whereas those who work in the legal industry report an average of only three.

The healing power of work friends

We may connect with people at work through shared experiences within the organization. And sometimes, we create these connections with coworkers because we share our misery. In the case of toxic workplace cultures, colleagues have been known to “trauma bond” over their shared negative experiences. This, in turn, leads to higher retention rates in some organizations. It’s not always easy to leave an organization just because the culture is toxic, and for some people, the best reason to stay is to support those you’ve come to care about.

This bond isn’t limited to toxic environments, either: even in workplaces where the culture is enjoyable, people still need a friendly ear to complain about mundane tasks, ineffective leaders, or just a bad day.

However, trauma bonding isn’t the only benefit of having friends at work. We’ve seen that it’s known to increase engagement among multiple groups; additionally, having someone at work to share harmless jokes or memes with just feels good. After all, your coworkers are the only people who know what your job is truly like.

Overall, friendships that form within the bounds of a healthy workplace culture can create connections crucial to long-term business success. When leaders can facilitate connections between the culture, strategy, and purpose, as well as connections between employees, they are more likely to have fulfilled employees who remain in their roles for more extended periods.

Finding the line between friends and coworkers

Some companies have strict policies about the level of fraternization that is acceptable in the workplace, and sometimes, these friendships are actively discouraged or even against company policy.

However, to further embrace the importance of employee fulfillment, leaders must create a culture in which people feel free to bring their whole selves to work, including connecting with other employees. Fostering opportunities for those connections allow people to feel more comfortable while at work, and that sense of comfort is a large piece of the puzzle that keeps employees happy in their roles.

Jessica Kriegel is the chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners, leading research and strategy in best practices for driving results through culture. For 15+ years, Jessica has been guiding global, national, Fortune 100 and other organizations across finance, technology, real estate and healthcare industries on the path to creating intentional cultures that accelerate performance.