In the early 2000s, several newspapers reported the story of George, a man who passed away at his desk … and wasn’t discovered for two days. Or was it five days? Was he a tax accountant racing to finish an audit? Or a proofreader going through pages of medical texts?
This particular incident proved to be an urban myth, so the details aren’t important. But what makes this story so compelling is that it plays on one of humanity’s greatest fears: that something will happen to us, and no one will notice.
People are inherently social creatures, we just tend to separate ‘work’ and ‘play’ a bit more these days, which is surprising considering how much of our day is spent in an office. Once, work was a major source of friendships – perhaps if George had a few at work someone would have noticed he was, shall we say, out of it at his desk. In 1985, 50 per cent of Americans had a close friendship with a co-worker, according to a study from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. When the survey was taken again in 2004, the number decreased to 30 per cent. This is not the case in two other countries surveyed, though: 74 per cent of Polish have at least one close friendship at work, and 78 per cent of Indians do.
Although this data is a little outdated, it’s still indicative of some culture shifts around the role of work and where we place it in our hierarchy of importance. The Michigan researchers suggested that people living and working in western cultures, such as America and Australia, are conditioned to keep personal and professional separate.
Now, work is a transactional space. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form bonds with the person next to us – it’s the classic “You’re not here to make friends” approach. However, joking with co-workers at lunch or chatting in the hallway doesn’t just make the workday more pleasant – it also positively affects job performance.
The truth is, having friendships at work leads to a lasting, more fulfilling work experience. The average adult spends more time per week with colleagues than with mates, so it’s important that workplaces foster relationships between employees to get the most from them. The simple question, “Do you have friends at work?” proved a controversial, yet enlightening question in one 2012 Gallup poll.
Although researchers were initially sceptical about how meaningful the answers would be, the statistical significance was interesting. Friendship at work trumped seemingly obvious employee motivators such as higher pay and great benefits. In fact, the correlation between having a friend at work and other desirable employee characteristics was revealed to be strong:
- 51 per cent with a friend felt engaged, while only 10 per cent without a friend felt engaged;
- 75 per cent with a friend at work plan to be with the company one year from now compared to 50 per cent;
- 50 per cent with a friend plan to forge their career with the company, while only a quarter of those without a friend do; and
- 60 per cent with a friend at work said they would recommend the company, its products and services, compared to 38 per cent who lack a friend at work.
It’s unfair to assume that everyone is looking for the same level of social interaction in the workplace – some need more, some need less, but it is fair to assume that everyone is looking for at least a little bit.
“Without friendships at work, you miss out on two types of important support,” says Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/Mclean Institute of Coaching and a contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Speaking with HBR, she identified these support types as structural, which is the ability to ask for help with a task when you need it, and emotional support, which is having someone who can talk you through stress, change or anxiety. Without these, feelings of isolation and loneliness at work skyrocket, and this in turn affects performance, and physical and mental health.
Camaraderie contributes to more than just warm-fuzzies. It promotes a group loyalty that results in shared commitment and discipline. Additionally, one study found that when co-workers self-disclosed and discussed non work-related topics, they forged a stronger, more trusting, productive, accountable and collaborative bond.
This quantifiable link between friendship and business results proves management should make fostering friendships at work a priority.
What can HR do?
Some employers might think it’s distracting for employees to work with buddies, but psychologist Ron Friedman, a management and market research consultant and author of The Best Places to Work: The art and science of creating an extraordinary workplace, thinks friendship is the single most overlooked factor when it comes to building a great workplace. In an interview with Forbes magazine, he says having friends at work can contribute powerfully to your ability to focus, deal with setbacks, make important decisions and give constructive feedback. One 2011 study relied on a series of interviews with 700 employees over six weeks. Those who felt lonelier at the start demonstrated weaker performance in the categories of communication, individual business contributions and focus.
One key takeaway from most of the research is that everyone wants to feel recognised and appreciated. One study from Oracle found that the most important influence on employee engagement was not managers (7 per cent), nor was it line managers (21 per cent) or HR (3 per cent). Nearly half of respondents reported that peers had the greatest influence over how engaged they felt. With this in mind, one easy step for HR is to give employees access to social recognition programs so they can ‘pat’ each other on the back and acknowledge a job well done.
Additionally, creating an environment that fosters interaction between workers is essential. One study found that even something as simple as increasing the size of tables in the office lunchroom can boost employee productivity and morale by as much as 25 per cent. Not only do moves like this create conducive office spaces, they increase the likelihood that employees will encounter and speak with each other more over the course of the working day.
Social activities like simple coffee hours or interest groups can also help create a sense of community and promote connections across the organisation. Facilitate ways for employees to find common ground with each other through employee resource groups, or ERGs. These are voluntary social groups for workers with similar interests or backgrounds. Usually, the first hurdle for anyone – millennial or baby boomer, introvert or extrovert, boss or peon – is finding common ground to make an initial connection. Oversharing is always a no-no, and workers should have the option to be involved in activities or not, but gathering around a common interest, goal, idea or theme breaks the ice.
Workplace friendships are certainly not the only thing influencing employee performance, and whether co-workers bond at work with each other is, ultimately, a personal decision. However, a high-quality connection doesn’t require a deep or intimate relationship – sometimes, it’s something as simple as popping your head up to see if your cubicle mate is all right, so that no one ends up like George.