Do You Have Any Friends At Work?

For many of us, this may seem like a strange question.   Do we have any friends at work? The reason the question may sound a bit ironic is that the two words; “friends” and “work” don’t always intermingle.

The notion of work has traditionally encouraged people to show only their “professional” selves. In most work environments, when you walk through the doors of the office, it is almost like a part of your personality shuts down. You become guarded about your personal life and the majority of your relationships tend to be more-or-less business focused.   I know people that have been working together for over a decade who do not know even the most basic information about each other such as whether the other person has kids or what some of their hobbies are.

A big part of the reason we behave this way is because in most places, it is the norm. It is part of the culture of the workplace and our individual desires to keep work and life separate. For most people it is just fine.   They can see themselves having a drink with a colleague after work, but very few would identify that colleague as a “friend”.

But do we even need friends at work?

A 2014 survey by employee recognition firm Globoforce showed the more friends an employee has at work, the happier and more productive they are, and the less likely they are to leave for another job. The majority (71%) of employees with friends at work reported loving their companies, compared to only 24% of employees who didn’t have friends at work. Employees with a pal at the office reported being highly engaged (69%), and only 21% of employees with friends at work said they would leave their company for another job, compared to 42% of those who didn’t have a workplace friend.

Perhaps talking about friendships at work is over the top, but few will deny the importance of having good relationships in the workplace is very conducive to getting things done. Social capital and relationships increase people’s chances of getting assistance and support when they need it and can also contribute to career advancement. When people actually care about each other, they’re more willing to help when needed. Just think about it. In other words, connecting with your colleagues at work can enhance your effectiveness as an employee and your well-being as a person. Building friendly relationships creates a fertile ground for teamwork, and is far better than a sterile workplace that spawns competitiveness and mistrust. That atmosphere engenders more creativity, as people innovate most when they feel supported and the work culture is upbeat and fun.

While the overall consensus that a “social” workplace is a better workplace, Dr. David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute sends an alarming warning that indicates that the quality of relationships in the workplace is on the decline. Rock’s view is that human beings are built to mentally “reset” and see the world socially anytime they enter a new situation. However, modern humans tend to value analytical over social thinking, and so we tend to override that natural behavior.

Our organizational environments have built systems and processes that nudge people to think rationally rather than socially. We sit behind computers and analytical dashboards.   The rapid growth of remote work and telecommuting isn’t necessary helping the case either.

In the workplace, if you are in a mindset that discounts social cues, you are going to miss a lot of important information around you and a lot of opportunities for creative problem-solving. We end up thinking that a lot of problems have analytic solutions; you just have to crunch the right numbers. Yet many of the toughest business challenges require social solutions.

The decline in relationships is being further exacerbated as globalization and technology dramatically impact our lives and work, leading to fragmentation in our attention, achievement and authenticity. As we try to do more, run faster and be more efficient, we often neglect or don’t prioritize building relationships at work. The other week, I received an email from someone I’ve worked with for a long time.   It didn’t start with a “hi” or “hello”, instead it was very direct and started with the word “question”.   I can tell from the tone of the email that it wasn’t her true self, this was her under tremendous pressure and to be honest, it made be reluctant to help out.   It sounds like a simple thing, but it goes such a long way.

In an era where many organizations and individuals are trying to solve for employee engagement being at record lows, three former Zappos employees are digging deep into the what it takes to build and foster meaningful relationships at work while applying what they’ve learned while working in an organization that is arguably one of the most vibrant and social cultures in the world.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has been a huge promoter of a social workplace. Zappos’ culture and values have been carefully designed to encourage employees to socialize and build relationships.   Even their headquarters has been meticulously designed in a way that gets people running into each other frequently, creating what Hsieh calls “collisions”, which is all about meeting lots of different people without trying to extract value from them. Just being social.

“The co-founders of Teamvvork, Josh Stanley, Aye Thu and Chris Coy are a perfect example of how building relationships in the workplace leads to great things.  The three worked in different departments at Zappos.   Stanley was a Technical Project Manager, Thu was a Manager of Software Engineering, and Coy was a User Experience Designer.   Despite working in different departments in the 1300-person organization, the three had formed a strong bond and friendship thanks to Zappos’ culture of openness and spontaneity. “We became so close that if Aye or Chris ever needed anything, I’d drop everything and be there for them at moment’s notice.” said Stanley. “Zappos emphasized serendipitous interaction, allowing for time and activities that left space for people to be themselves and enjoy each others talents.” he adds.

Their bond was further perpetuated earlier this year when they decided to leave Zappos, launching Teamvvork to help other organizations rekindle strong relationships in the workplace. Their humble mission is to connect employees with similar passions and interests, organize events for these groups of employees and accelerate the onboarding of new employees by connecting them socially from day-one to other employees in the organization.

So can bringing the social aspect back into the workplace move the needle on employee engagement and in-turn create a happier, more collaborative work environment? According to this HBR article, what happens after the workday may be just as important as what happens during it.

Workforce analytics company exaqueo developed a scientific model and applied it to ethnographic research they were doing for a number of organizations. Specifically, they used interviewing and focus groups to find out whether many of the root causes of engagement are actually found outside the workplace. The answer? A resounding “yes.”

While there may not be a magic bullet in existence to turn around employee engagement, one thing is clear. People are social by nature and these days, more than ever, the value of friendships and relationships in the workplace are an essential part of working in the fast-paced, rapidly changing environments that we are now accustomed to.   So ask yourself: Do I have any friends in at work?

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