Social butterflies are busy bees: How workplace friendships boost productivity


If you have a good friend for a colleague you are more likely to be engaged and satisfied at work.

Part of being happy at work is having at least a few colleagues with whom you get along well with. For some, these constitute true friendships that transcend location, circumstance and peer level. But for many of us, it’s more about what could be loosely termed ‘work friendships’, or in other words, you might regularly do lunch or coffee, discuss and even exchange office confidences, but you don’t make a point of hanging outside of work hours.

A recent US study at Olivet Nazarene University of 3000 people in full-time jobs found the majority (41%) take a neutral view of colleagues, with smaller categories for “only-at-work” friends (20%), real friends (15%) and enemies (2%). 

Of those surveyed, the average number of friends at work is five, but 71% said they wouldn’t describe any as “best friends”.  There’s a tacit view that really good friends are best had away from the workplace, which is fair enough; it’s healthy to keep your work life and social life separate. 

Industry variations

The survey also reveals the average number of friends in each industry, which is high (10) in transportation and low (three) in the legal profession.

Work environments impact on the quantity of friends: people whose profession enables them to travel to a variety of locations (such as sales) have a higher number of friends than (surprise) people who work from home.  (The survey doesn’t say whether this might also be a consequence of more extroverts working in sales, compared to quieter types who prefer the home office.)

The professions with employees that supposedly make friends fastest are insurance, marketing, advertising and public relations, real estate, retail and food and beverage.  Those that are slower are human resources, engineering, finance and banking and government. Perhaps this has to do with protecting the confidentiality of information? (It’s tempting to also attribute this finding to ‘technocratic’ versus ‘people’ professions, but how would that explain human resources?)

Discussing sensitive subjects at work

Taking a closer look at sensitive subjects discussed with work friends, the majority (64%) of these discussions are about workplace conflict. Financial issues (33%) rank the lowest, probably for the simple reason that many dislike airing their money hassles with people who aren’t necessarily their most trusted friends.

The somewhat transactional nature of these relationships comes to the fore when we consider only 18% of those surveyed stay closely in touch with past colleagues. (It isn’t clear from the study whether those former colleagues also make an effort to stay in contact.) 

LinkedIn is an interesting litmus test. Think of all the people you’ve connected with — how many of them respond to messages you send?  Most are happy enough to connect, but little more than that. There’s certainly not a lot of engagement.

Managers often get frustrated by distracted staff having ‘personal discussions’ at work. But the study indicates the potential to have this kind of engagement may, in fact, make employees happier with boosted productivity. What a conundrum managers!

Changing nature of employment impacts the depth of friendships at work

The researchers concluded that most workplaces are quite friendly, but only to a point. The majority of those surveyed recognise they’re employed to do a job, with social intimacy reserved for outside work hours, sometimes with a few trusted colleagues, but generally not. This may be cultural to some degree: Adam Grant notes in the New York Times that Americans (for example) tend to be more impersonal with colleagues, compared with (say) Polish or Indian workers, but that some of this can be attributed to a decline in long-term employment. People are moving between jobs more frequently and hence investing less emotionally in the companies where they work. Technology has similarly impacted the quality of our social connections. 

Interestingly, camaraderie builds in off-site remote projects, and emergency or dangerous jobs where people need to rely on each other for collective success. Even if you’re not firefighting or participating in rescues for a living, situations where it’s suddenly all-hands-on-deck can make for unexpected long-term friendships between colleagues who otherwise have little in common. 

Impact of loneliness at work

It seems from the research the typical workplace is tolerable, even quite pleasant, but seldom the stuff of emotional enrichment.

Why does any of this matter? If you’re pondering what happens when one has few or no workplace friends, loneliness at work leads to physiological stress and impacts our ability to make effective decisions. 

Global pollster Gallup’s advice (based on its regular surveys) is instructive: loneliness at work leads to less workplace engagement and job satisfaction. Reductionist-minded managers who focus solely on the bottom line are missing the point — if people are engaged and happier (both in terms of good work relationships and their responsibilities) their productivity will be better too.

Develop workplace wellbeing

Whether you’re a worker or employer, for true workplace wellbeing to develop, consider:

  • Being supportive where needed;
  • Being inclusive where possible;
  • Being sympathetic, warm and patient where you can;
  • Being trustworthy and reliable when you should;
  • Being open to different communication styles when called for; and
  • Being observant and a good listener.

Friendships that reciprocally sustain will gradually emerge. 

As savvy employers are realising, it really is the whole person and the quality (not quantity) of their emotional connections (whether at work or elsewhere) which adds up to measure viable company growth. This makes for stronger, caring and committed companies and individuals.

NOW READ: Seven optimum conditions for happiness at work

NOW READ: Four ways to turbo-charge your team’s productivity


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