Do you think of your colleagues as your friends? Do you update them on your personal life? Or do you prefer to keep work relationships and your personal life as psychologically distanced as possible?
Our team was recently approached by The Project to comment on the importance of having friends at work. As a topic that is often neglected, we decided to continue the conversation here – and share our tips for cultivating strong relationships at work.
Our team is no stranger to workplace friendships. As we write this, our Wellington-based team is preparing for a Saturday afternoon picnic at a colleague’s house. It’s also not uncommon for our Monday selves to send or receive a “Happy Monday friend” message as the first thing we do in our work week.
We know from very robust research that social connection is one of the key predictors of health and wellbeing and can buffer us from the impact of stressful events. We believe in this so much that one of the core blocks of our Strengthening Resilience workshop is devoted to the strategies we can use to build and maintain strong relationships.
So, what’s the deal with friendships at work?
Friendships at work can be instrumental or task-based (e.g., having a laugh while working together on a spreadsheet), or more personal (e.g., offering emotional support for things happening in a colleague’s personal life). Often, they serve both purposes.
Whichever form they take, it’s important not to assume that a work friendship looks the same for everyone. Not everyone wants to be emotionally close with colleagues if they are more of a “segmenter” (i.e., someone who likes to keep firm boundaries between their work life and their home life). For “integrators” (i.e., people who keep those home/personal boundaries very fluid), however, close friendships might be a necessary part of being at work. Certain pieces of research suggest that, for some people, work friendships can increase work engagement up to seven-fold.
Importantly, there is research showing that friendships at work can be detrimental for some, for their impact on team performance, and for the difficulty and energy it takes to maintain them. But other research shows that friendships at work can enhance performance through greater trust and communication. Findings like these show that the jury is still out when it comes to friendships at work – suggesting that (no surprises!) our friendships are a highly individual experience.
Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, having people you can trust and go to for support at work is important.
Relationships at work strengthen our sense of community and belonging
Some research shows that we are more embedded and attached to our community when we have strong friendships (compared with family bonds). This might be the case because our friends, including workplace relationships, offer unique forms of social support that differ from the ones provided by family.
While family relationships are often rooted in responsibility and obligation, friendships are voluntary and chosen to fill social connection and belongingness needs. What’s more, the more anchored in our community we are, the lower our work turnover intentions – making us more stable in our jobs and in life.
When there is trust, people perform better
Having strong relationships at work is positively associated with performance and productivity. As a result of this trust and closeness, people are more likely to disclose their errors at work.
This is largely because errors in psychologically safe and supportive environments are viewed as an opportunity for growth, and in the best interest of the team to disclose. When there are trusting relationships at work, we are more likely to assist each other in achieving work goals, rather than putting our individual interests first, which contributes to higher overall productivity at the team level.
In addition, having strong relationships at work provides us with resources to better cope with the stressful events that come and go during our working days. We can communicate more openly and authentically, and we are more open to offering and receiving support – whether practical or emotional.
Strong relationships at work are a source of positive emotions
We know from research that humour, and other injections of positive emotions, are good for our wellbeing, our engagement, and our performance at work:
“My work bestie and I often make time to catch up on a call to connect over a virtual cup of tea. We chat about life, hobbies, new wellbeing tips and … we laugh! I’ve noticed these calls provide me with a boost of positive emotions and inspiration and it makes everything else a little bit brighter”, shares Svetlana, Marketing Lead at Umbrella.
When we’re at work we want to be proactive and intentional about having fun with others. Remember how during COVID-19 lockdowns, many of us played games over virtual tea breaks and giggled over Zoom filters gone wrong? These moments of humour and joy shouldn’t only come out in special circumstances (e.g., the annual holiday party) – we can all benefit from them all-year round.
A 2022 study from the UK found that support and friendship with co-workers is crucial for being able to create new ideas and perform well. The researchers also found evidence of a positive “spill-over” from work to family life, where employees experience a positive emotion boost from their supportive colleagues and, in turn, bring this boost home to their family. In psychology, we call this “the positivity spiral”, when one area of life positively reinforces another.
Ultimately, each one of us influences, and is influenced by, those around us. We benefit most when we invite the people around us to help and be helped, including fostering workplace relationships. A collective approach to wellbeing is what seems to be most important to us when buffering, bolstering, and building our mental, physical, and social health.