The Power of Work Friends

Despite the claim that “people are our greatest asset,” too many executives still expect employees to leave their personal lives at the door when they come to work. Yet Gallup data shows that having a best friend at work is strongly linked to business outcomes, including improvements in profitability, safety, inventory control and employee retention. And recent Gallup findings show that since the start of the pandemic, having a best friend at work has had an even greater impact on important outcomes—like how likely workers are to recommend their workplace, intent to leave, and overall satisfaction. With the inevitable increase in remote and hybrid work, best friends in the workplace have become lifelines that provide vital social connection, collaboration and support for each other during times of change. The author offers four ways managers can create and maintain a friendly workplace that delivers measurable results.

Millions of people suffer from loneliness. More than 300 million people around the world don’t have a single friend, according to Gallup. And more than 20% of people don’t have friends or family they can count on when they need them.

The average person spends 81,396 hours – the equivalent of more than nine years – at work. “Americans are now more likely to make friends at work than in any other way — including at school, in the neighborhood, at their place of worship or even through existing friends,” according to the Center for the Study of American Life.

So, people spend a large part of their lives at work, and that’s where they’re most likely to develop friendships. Yet of all the things companies do to improve employees’ lives and promote their happiness, social well-being is the aspect they invest the least in, according to a Gallup survey of CHROs at the world’s largest companies. In fact, Gallup found that globally only three in 10 employees strongly agree that they have a best friend at work.

Why should companies care?

Despite the claim that “people are our greatest asset,” many executives I’ve met expect employees to leave their personal lives at the door when they come to work. Yet Gallup data shows that having a best friend at work is strongly linked to business outcomes, including improvements in profitability, safety, inventory control and employee retention.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota not only confirmed that close friendships increase productivity in the workplace, but also discovered why—friends are more committed, communicate better, and encourage each other. And according to a global study by the International Social Research Program (ISSP), “Interpersonal [work] relationships have a significant and significant positive effect on the average employee’s job satisfaction. [Relationships] ranks first out of . . . 12 domains of workplace quality in terms of power to explain variation in job satisfaction.”

If increased productivity, profitability, job satisfaction and retention weren’t enough, recent Gallup findings show that since the start of the pandemic, having a best friend at work has had an even greater impact on important outcomes—like how likely workers are to refer their workplace, intention to leave and overall satisfaction. With the inevitable increase in remote and hybrid work, best friends in the workplace have become lifelines that provide vital social connection, collaboration and support for each other during times of change.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has not only worsened global loneliness, but also affected workplace friendships. Among people working in hybrid environments, Gallup reported a five-point drop in those who say they have a best friend at work since 2019.

Building lasting friendships in the workplace

Whether the workplace is all-in-person, all-remote, or hybrid, a culture that prioritizes and encourages workplace friendships is good for employees and good for the bottom line. So how can managers create and maintain a friendly workplace that delivers measurable results while helping to combat the global loneliness epidemic? Here are some actions you should take right away:

Establish buddy system.

Everyone needs a friend, especially when new to a company. Teaming new hires with veteran employees can speed onboarding and productivity. Workplace buddies not only give new hires advice about where things are and what the unwritten rules are, but help them make connections with other people in the company. And some of those initial connections will almost certainly lead to long-term relationships.

The key to an effective buddy system is frequency of interactions. Microsoft found that when new hires met with their buddy more than eight times in their first 90 days on the job, 97 percent said their buddy helped them become productive quickly. But when new hires met their friend just once in the first 90 days, that number was just 56%.

Increase face time.

Before the pandemic, work was a place where colleagues could drink coffee, have lunch and meet in the hallway for impromptu conversations. For people who started working remotely full-time in 2020, one of the biggest changes was a sharp reduction in hours spent socializing with work friends.

Building friendships requires talking, seeing and being with people. The best way to connect is to see each other — even if it’s on Zoom or FaceTime. But at a minimum, colleagues should talk more and email less. Email will never match face-to-face dialogue. It’s also much easier to misinterpret what he means via email.

Business leaders should lead by example: communicate more in person and less email. Additionally, leaders can foster personal interactions by revising expectations, establishing new cultural norms, and even updating workplace configurations. For example, encourage cross-training or have workers rotate job duties so they can collaborate with people in other areas of the company. Exposure to new people creates opportunities to meet new friends. Plan social events, meetings or lunches on site. Move people’s workspaces closer together. Where else do you spend so much time with people from different walks of life organized around a common mission? And where else are you so dependent on the efforts of others?

Jam constantly.

When people share a common goal and accomplish great things together, they create a bond. The joy is working together to create magic. Using The Beatles as an example of a highly effective team, The Economist states: “The Beatles love what they do for a living. When they’re not playing music, they’re talking or thinking about it. They do overdub after overdub of their own songs and jam constantly.”

If you’ve ever been part of a collaborative “jam session,” you know the feeling. Your employees want to feel that too – the satisfaction and pride of creating something great while having fun. Best friends trust, accept and forgive each other. And when they work together, Gallup research has shown that they are significantly more likely to engage customers and internal partners, get more done in less time, maintain a safer workplace, innovate and share ideas, and have fun at work.

Don’t force it.

Thanks to the pandemic, the days of near-mandatory happy hours and “kindergarten offices” filled with games and colorful toys designed to encourage workers to stay late for fun team-building activities may be behind us. According to Paul Lopuszinski, founder of Vancouver-based consultancy Playficient, “This culture is not really for fun; it’s about getting people to stay longer.”

You can impose rules, training, or schedules, but you can’t force people to be friends. You don’t want your employees to start hating the very thought of company parties.

If your company still discourages friendships in the workplace despite its proven benefits to business results, remember this simple premise: to ignore friendships is to ignore human nature. In the battle between corporate politics and human nature, human nature always wins. Evidence suggests that people will satisfy their social needs regardless of what is imposed. Companies are much better off harnessing the power of this kind of social capital than fighting against it.

As I discuss in my new book, Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, loneliness is all too common. In the US, two out of 10 workers spend much of the day feeling lonely. For your employees who don’t have friends they can count on, work can be miserable—and that misery can make their lives worse than not having a job. But companies that prioritize the social well-being of their workers and give people opportunities to make friends at work could help solve the loneliness epidemic that affects too much of humanity.

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