In praise of turning colleagues into friends – and why it may help your career
We should value and nurture our work relationships, says Sirena Bergman
Nowhere is such an interaction more likely to take place than in a work environment. Annoyed at the commute? Me too! Delighted by the new options in the office canteen? Same! Going stir-crazy with your boss’s unreasonable demands? Hard relate.
Research from Olivet Nazarene University in Chicago showed that 82 per cent of people would consider someone they work with “a friend”, yet fewer than 30 per cent would say a work colleague was a “best friend”.
The dynamics of making friends with a work colleague are complex and hard to pinpoint, but when it works, it can be incredibly fulfilling and positive in both a personal and professional sense.
Antonia is 25 and works in publishing. Last year, she met Lily at work – and from the first team lunch they had together they both knew they were going to be friends.
“After about a month of her working here, we'd go to the coffee machine in the next-door building for 11am coffee every single morning without fail,” says Antonia. “Soon we were having lunch every day – it helped that we were the only ones who wanted to leave our desks for lunch and have some fresh air.”
But despite becoming close and spending so much time together, it took six months for them to take the plunge and agree to meet up after work.
This seems fairly common, and possibly the point where so many work friendships stagnate. But why does it happen?
One of the unique elements of a work-based friendship is that the person we present as at work may be different to how we act in social settings. Psychotherapist and counsellor Hilda Burke explains that our “work personas” aren’t a deliberate act of deception, but more a subconscious subtle shift in the way we behave.
“Many of us have strong ideas around the way we need to be to get on at work – so we might make ourselves more submissive, more dominant, more ‘nice’, less ‘nice’, whatever it is we think it takes to get ahead or get along at work. And this way of being could differ greatly from who we really are when we’re out of performance mode and away from work,” she explains.
One thing combatting this phenomenon is the rise of messaging apps such as Slack or HipChat which actively encourage coworkers to communicate in a more informal way. The sense of an endless conversation punctuated by emojis and GIFs lends itself to sharing more of one’s personality and allows for connections to be forged. Outside of work, we can follow our colleagues on Instagram and Twitter and chat to them about our day on WhatsApp.
Despite being the most interconnected generation, millennials are still overwhelmingly reporting to have few friends. A YouGov poll showed that three in ten millennials always or often feel lonely.
Perhaps when it comes to making friends at work all this technology has made it harder to differentiate boundaries between acquaintances and friendships.
Rachel*, 32, is a journalist, and met a friend at work at a digital publication five years ago. “We used to talk all the time – we’d send each other funny videos and links and even chatted while we were on holiday.”
Despite having the kind of relationship that many would deem a close friendship, she never saw them as “friends”.
“I always just thought we were colleagues who got on really well. Then [she] got engaged and asked me to be a bridesmaid. Weirdly, it felt totally natural, if a bit shocking, and I realised I’d been in denial all that time about how close we really were.”
As work and life relationships merge, it can be easy to hold these friendships in the in-between stage, where someone you see every day and talk to most evenings never really feels like a true friend. For some people, the fear of seeming unprofessional can be a worry.
Kirsty Anna and Ellie were in their early 20s when they became close friends at work.
“We both did worry as our team was small (six of us including the founder) and we didn’t want to feel like we were leaving anyone out,” explains Kirsty Anna. But they needn’t have worried – when the team found out how close their friendship was they fully supported it, and even encouraged it.
This is the attitude managers should have when it comes to work friendships, says Tess Cooper – a people consultant and founder of Collaborative Future, a social enterprise focusing on workplace inclusivity.
“Many of us do not have the ability or desire to compartmentalise. We go through huge personal journeys during their working life and they don't suddenly disappear when we get to work, so having strong friendships in the workplace can be a huge support and help individuals to cope with what life throws at them,” she says.
She’s witnessed people seem uncomfortable with office friendships, especially when there’s a power differential between the two parties. “When individuals are promoted to managing their friends I've seen them struggle with how they should or shouldn't behave with their colleagues now.”
But she doesn’t think this is a reason to discourage such friendships, in fact, it’s a sign that companies should work towards more transparency.
Companies would be wise to invest in these friendships. Gallup conducted research last year which found that being friends with people we work with can actually make us more productive. According to the study, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63 per cent) compared with the women who say otherwise (29 per cent).
But to get to that point we need not only to have friends, but to recognise them as such. Niels Eek is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Remente, a mental wellbeing and self-development platform.
He says: “To assess if a work relationship could develop into a ‘real-life’ friendship, think about what you gain from, and give in, your current friendships. Also, reflect on how you communicate and socialise with your friends at the moment. Then consider if this is something you have, or would actually want, from your co-workers.”
As we get older friendships with schoolmates and even university friends can start to feel more distant. We can grow apart as our interests change and our lives evolve. Most of us spend more time at work than we do sleeping; we spend more time with our colleagues than with our families, partners or non-work friends.
It stands to reason that we would forge close bonds with those we can share such a big part of our lives with – accepting and embracing this reality could make us happier individuals and better workers. Turning a colleague into a true friend could be the best thing you ever do.