A recent article in the New York Times entitled “the magic of your first work friends” took a moment to discuss the value and power of workplace friendships and the impact that those connections have in wider life away from work, especially in early career. As the author of the piece mused, those friends created at work became those who shared some of the closest and dearest moments of her life; from weddings to divorces to family matters – the sheer quantity of time spent with people in the workplace provide fertile ground for meaningful relationships to grow. It has been long recognised that, for better or worse, the workplace can be a petri dish of relationships – be they romantic, fraternal or even ones of hatred. Yet, what has often been overlook is the impact of those relationships and the power they hold for determining professional success. As the author of the NYT piece muses, it was the friends at work, as opposed to leaders and mentors, from which she learned critical life lessons and advice on topics such as “how to take feedback from a boss without compromising on ideas”, “how to have fun at the office holiday party without getting too drunk” and “when she had landed upon the perfect guy to marry”. As the author sums up so perfectly in the piece, our work friendships are unique in that they do not long remain work friendships; in fact it is those friends we make at work who have unpredictable, yet powerful, influences in life beyond work.
An oft-cited statistic from Gallup states that those employees who have even one friend at work are 63% more engaged in their work. Shared moment of frustration, joy and even grief underpin these statistics. In an average workplace, employees spend up to 1/3 of their day collaborating, connecting with, working alongside or with colleagues and this time spent together can forge powerful relationships. The power of data can tell us a lot about workplaces and the intrinsic relationships that make them tick. Data analysis conducted on MS 365 data can show strong trends and friendship networks manifested through email, teams and collaboration data. On the reverse, data can even predict where isolated peers, those with less strong networks, might be at risk of becoming mere statistics in the annual turnover reports. This is because strong networks – both professional and personal – drive notions of belonging and familiarity which in turn make for happier and more engaged staff which in turn compels people to stay with organisations.
Having a friend at work is important. Vital even. Critics of hybrid work often state that one of the first casualties of hybrid work will be those friendships. Indeed, those cursed with the memory of the relic of pandemic past – zoom happy hours – will be quick to note how social intimacy is more difficult to recreate over zoom. However, while it is true that zoom fails in built intimacy and such relationships are easier to manifest in real life in shared space, that is not to say that they cannot develop in the hybrid world of work. At times, it often feels that the narrative surrounding hybrid work is at odds with cultivating relationships at work; this is because so much of the narrative of hybrid work has focused on employees taking back their own time and sharing richer moments with family. However, what critics who see the hybrid model as undermining workplace friendship fail to recognize is that the hybrid model simply re-balances people’s priorities on any given day which means that time spent in the office with colleagues actually becomes more meaningful time in which those stronger relationships can thrive. This is especially profound for those early-career employees who, unlike their older peers, are growing in a more balanced world of work which seemingly rejects the toxicity of hustle culture. In this way, early career employees actually have the best of both worlds – strong connections and bonds outside of work, just as they might develop in the parameters of work.
Organizations who are aware of the harnessing the power of this time have already taken steps to provide spaces and opportunities for friendships to grow. In part this involves many organisations rethinking the entire traditional operating model of work– away from one of heads down focus work to one of heads up collaboration and socializing. From happy hours to social activities and wellness initiatives, many organisations are now re-imagining the physical office exactly as the special types of spaces where those strong relationships can grow. Taken in turn with the fact that since switching to a hybrid model people report having better connections in their personal lives, the overall outlook for employee well-being and, by corollary, happiness looks optimistic. In this way, the hybrid model may actually be a boon for meaningful, balanced and durable friendships which far and beyond seep through the workplace membrane into everyday life.