As a social species, we crave connection. So, for us, friendships at work matter. This is a well-known origin story about us humans that stems from our evolutionary need to cooperate in order to survive. When we achieve this successfully, we recognise it through the quality of our friendships and our levels of happiness. When we don’t, the flipside can be loneliness, alienation and unhappiness. Which of these do you see more of, in the responses you get from your staff surveys? If it’s alienation and unhappiness, don’t be too hard on yourself, your organisation will definitely not be alone.

Although it will vary between cultures, when it comes to the permissions we give ourselves around developing friendships, we instinctively apply different rules and expectations to our personal versus our professional relationships. This comes from our evolutionary quest for security, which is built on those deep-rooted levels of trust we more commonly associate with family, childhood and other longstanding bonds.

But if we can press the pause button on our shared evolution for a moment, doesn’t this separation seem a little arbitrary in the modern world? After all, the need to cooperate for survival arguably has at least as much context in the modern workplace and economy, as it does at home and socially. Isn’t it time to move the conversation beyond how, when and even whether a work relationship can also be a friendship? And towards a more rational application of the overwhelming benefits of friendship and how they can be put to good use across every area of our lives and, especially, at work.

The importance of friendships

Numerous studies demonstrate that strong social relationships significantly benefit our health, quality of life and performance. The NHS lists ‘connecting with other people’ as its first of 5 steps to mental wellbeing. Strong connections also lead to better physical health outcomes to such an extent, that a lack of social relationships is linked to a risk of death that is comparable to smoking and alcohol consumption and even greater than physical inactivity and obesity. Sickness absence is estimated to cost the UK £29 billion a year.

Bottomline business performance benefits too. When we give ourselves permission to form work relationships using the same mindset that makes us open to friendships in our personal lives, we are creating the conditions to improve how we experience and perform at work:

  • Positive friendships are more likely to offer different perspectives that feel trustworthy, nurturing and challenge our beliefs in a way that motivates and encourages us to experiment and grow.
  • They increase self-esteem, confidence and foster a greater sense of belonging, acceptance and support, which can all transform the way we choose to show up at work.
  • People who see colleagues as friends are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs which results in increased productivity, profitability, job satisfaction, and retention.
  • Friends are more committed to each other, communicate better, and encourage each other more, building more collaborative and resilient work-based communities.
  • The availability of social support within a team and within an organisation is one of the biggest predictors of how resilient it is and how adaptable it is to change.
  • The additional sense of fun and enjoyment that we get from friendships can boost mood-improving hormones that stimulate creativity, openness and reduce stress and conflict in the workplace.

How can we foster not force more friendship at work

There has arguably never been a better time to start promoting the benefits of authentic friendships at work. The covid pandemic was traumatic for different people in different ways, increasing everyone’s need for meaningful emotional and social support. It also accelerated a ‘digital-first’ lifestyle that has eliminated commutes, coffee queues, supermarket shopping and other face-to-face opportunities to feel part of a community. With fewer outlets for connection, the workplace takes on added importance and focus for people seeking greater social interaction.

Workplaces wanting to lead the way will require leadership with a genuine and strategic interest in creating a culture where friendships are valued and encouraged to flourish. And this should not mean increasing the number of ‘office socials’. Who hasn’t felt secretly mortified at having to mingle their way towards the cheese and wine through a well-intended, but poorly designed, office event? Time spent working with the social fabric of your organisation is never wasted, but you can’t simply push people together and expect them to become friends overnight, or in a way that tangibly unlocks the benefits of authentic, effective friendship. Effective friendships boost self-esteem and life satisfaction and are based on support, reciprocity, intimacy and companionship that can only be built over time and through a shared sense of value.

Here are some tips towards a more strategic approach to developing effective friendships at work:

  • Bring people together who wouldn’t normally encounter each other on a day-to-day basis and let them work on something together (cohort-based leadership development).
  • Avoid large ‘broadcast’ meetings which do not support the development of strong social connections.
  • Smaller learning groups (4 to 12 people) reduce conflict, build trust, increase each individual’s internal network, organisational understanding, confidence and, ultimately, their ability to get things done.
  • Task and report loops. Setting specific tasks for each small group creates purpose, whilst assigning volunteers to chair and feedback increases individual accountability.
  • Regular review meetings reinforce new routines and connections in a way that has a much stronger chance of embedding a new culture built on authentic, productive relationships.
  • Rotating people within small groups and sub-groups multiplies and duplicates interactions, creating stronger social ties within and across different peer groups.
  • Prioritise Viral Change. An approach to organisational transformation built upon building stronger social ties where people observe and duplicate the positive actions of those they trust.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “to ignore friendships is to ignore human nature. In the battle between company policy and human nature, human nature always wins.” But for teams and leaders motivated to unlock the personal and business benefits of greater social networks in the workplace, it doesn’t have to be either/ or. Friendship forms the fabric of what makes us feel good about ourselves and how we want to experience the world around us and nowhere should this apply more than at work, where we spend the majority of our waking lives. So next time you find yourself at a work ‘social’ and you overhear someone saying “I don’t come to work to make friends”, hopefully this article has armed you with the information and the confidence to ask “Why on earth not?”.

Conversations cost nothing, and it’s always good to hear from people – contact me to find out more about why friendships at work matter, or book an initial 30-minute call.

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