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Managing Friendship in the Workplace

Think about how you got to know your closest friends. You probably spent time a lot of time together. So it’s no surprise that you’ll make friends with people you spend time with in your workplace.

Recent surveys by Gallup confirm the importance of workplace friendships. Having a best friend at work significantly increases job satisfaction. It also provides social connections and emotional support. This was particularly important during the pandemic, and it remains important today—even in remote and hybrid workplaces.

On the flip side, some experts argue that personal relationships in the workplace can have significant downsides. They can cause drama, conflict, and lost productivity.

So what’s the right balance? How can we enjoy the benefits of having friends at work while avoiding the pitfalls?

The pros of workplace friendships

Having friends at work has the same benefits as having friends in general. That’s because close relationships are crucial for our emotional well-being.

But workplace friendships also bring special benefits. Workplace friendships:

  • Provide a sense of belonging and accountability. Genuine connections with your workmates make you feel you’re not alone. And when you’re not just another cog in the machine, you don’t want to let your friends down. That’s great motivation for successful, productive teamwork.
  • Support learning and professional development. People feel comfortable asking friends for information. Friends don’t judge you, and they don’t laugh at your “dumb questions.” Research shows that friends are also more likely to invite, accept, and share constructive feedback that helps you learn and grow.
  • Foster collaboration and creativity. Swapping ideas with friends can be inspiring. In a 2021 survey, 21% of respondents said that having a friend at work makes them feel more creative.
  • Provide moral support. Talking through stressors with someone who truly “gets it” can be a huge relief. Workplace friends have your back, and they give you encouragement and support through challenging times.

Workplace friendships are good for employers too

Gallup research shows that workplace friendships are strongly linked to business outcomes such as profitability and workplace safety. People naturally care about the safety of their co-workers. But they’re extra aware when they’re looking out for their friends.

Employees who have friends at work are more likely to be happy and to get more done in less time. They’re more likely to stay in their jobs and to say their company is a great place to work. And they’re less likely to steal from their employer.

The potential pitfalls

Workplace friendships can have many benefits—both for employers and for staff. However, the nature of workplace environments means these friendships can also be complicated.

Workplaces have their own rules. There can be multiple layers of supervisors and staff. How people in each level relate to one another—and to people in other levels—can make or break a company. If the rules of professionalism, fairness, and inclusion aren’t followed, personal relationships can lead to problems like:

  • Favouritism and unfairness. If you report to a manager who is also your friend, that friend might find it hard to be objective in evaluating your work. Team members may feel you’re being rewarded for your personal relationship rather than your performance. And that’s bad for team dynamics and morale.
  • The formation of in-groups. People who are left out of workplace cliques or friendships may feel lonely and excluded. So it’s important to be aware of how your workplace friendships affect other people.
  • Reduced productivity. Too much socializing can lead workers to waste work time and neglect business or customer needs.
  • Gossip and rumours. Gossip at work is a trap you want to avoid. For one thing, gossip creates mistrust and suspicion that makes life unpleasant. It can also be a serious violation of privacy.
  • Neglect of networking. Some researchers caution that workplace friendships keep people from building networks of co-workers that can help them succeed at work. People in your network have a clear role, which is to help you reach your professional goals. Friends, on the other hand, play many roles in your life. If they worry about your feelings and never challenge you, you may miss opportunities to improve and grow.

Best practices

Here are 4 things to keep in mind as you navigate workplace friendships.

1. Be professional

  • Set limits on the amount of socializing you do. It’s fine to chat for a few minutes at the beginning or end of the day, or while waiting for a meeting to begin, but don’t spend a lot of time visiting during work hours.
  • Be respectful and use appropriate language. For example, don’t swear at work.
  • Be careful about how you use humour. Humour can be a great tool for bonding, but teasing, in-group jokes, or racist or sexist jokes are always inappropriate.
  • Remember that your friends may not be friends with each other. Don’t take sides and don’t gossip. If a friend tells you something in confidence, keep it to yourself.

2. Be inclusive

  • If you’re planning a team lunch or outing, be sure to invite everyone. This is especially important if you’re a manager.

3. Be yourself

  • Be honest. Be direct. Be a good listener. And be a good communicator.
  • Let your friendships develop naturally. Remember that you can be friendly and inclusive without having to be best friends with everybody.
  • Don’t feel like you have to change who you are or what you think just to make a friend at work.

4. Respect boundaries

  • Recognize that some people may prefer to keep their home life and their work life separate. And different people may want different levels of social interaction, especially post-pandemic.
  • Be open about your own friendship boundaries. And let your friends know what you need from them. For example, if your chats are getting too personal, say you want to stay focused on work-related issues.
  • Choose conversation topics carefully. Avoid discussing personal matters like religion, age, and income.

Workplace relationships can get messy

Check out this article for tips on how to handle people problems and complicated situations. Clear communication can help you manage conflict—especially if you’re working remotely.

Tips for making friends at work

Different companies have different cultures around friendship, but most recognize the value of healthy social connection. Many workplaces organize events to help employees build friendships. Examples include team lunches, team-building weekends, monthly happy hours, or celebrations of birthdays and work anniversaries.

When these opportunities come up, be sure to join in! And be sure to make some moves yourself.

When you start a new job, take some time to get to know the ins and outs of the workplace. Think about how you can make a good first impression and get along with your new co-workers.

Onsite work

If you’re working onsite, there are many things you can do to get to know people:

  • Spend time in common areas for eating and socializing.
  • Make small talk, even if it’s just about the weather. Research shows that small talk helps build positive relationships and improves well-being.
  • Express curiosity about personal items or photos in colleagues’ workspaces. Personalize your own workspace too. Items that reflect your personality can be a conversation starter or highlight a shared interest.
  • Set up coffee and lunch dates with your co-workers.

Remote work

If you’re working remotely, take the time to make small personal connections:

  • When you set up a video call, allow 5 minutes at the beginning to catch up.
  • Schedule virtual coffee breaks, lunch hours, or happy hours.
  • Send a quick text or email to check in. For example, “We haven’t talked in a while, so I just wanted to say a quick hello!”
  • Let people know when you’re going to be unavailable or offline.
  • If you’re within reach of the office, go in once in a while to meet with colleagues in person. Or make an in-person lunch or coffee date.

A fine balance

Navigating the line between “friend mode” and “work mode” can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort. Making workplace friends is a good way to make your job more rewarding.

Whether you’re chatting around the water cooler, sharing a lunch break, or joining a virtual happy hour, friends are a valuable part of work-life balance.

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