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Making Friends at Work in a Hybrid World

Friendship is an important part of the new employee experience.

Key points

  • Building friendships with coworkers can enhance your overall employee experience and help you be more effective at work.
  • Friendships need trust, space, and time to grow—and shared challenges help them flourish.
  • Mindfulness is required to avoid recreating outdated power structures, like the old boys club, and contributing to workplace inequity.
 FreshSplash/Getty Images
Source: FreshSplash/Getty Images

I was recently invited to a business associate’s birthday celebration. When I asked him who else was coming, he rattled off a bunch of business contacts who just so happened to also be buyers. “Are these friends or clients?” I asked him. “They’re flients” was his answer.

That got me thinking about my own working relationships that develop into friendships. I have a group of close friends whom I met in my very first job—I was only at the company for 15 months but these friendships have lasted 15 years.

Friendships are great supports at work

I was recently struggling with a thorny work problem that had a lot of confused accountability and clashing priorities. After catching up with a friend and colleague (frolleague?) she gave me what I needed to break through it. After I aired some frustration in a safe space, she gave me feedback on how to approach things differently to break through the impasse. I did, and it worked.

Without the security of having someone to confide in without judgement and the perspective of someone who trusted me enough to be honest with me, I wouldn’t have found that solution for myself.

Friendships are an important part of a healthy employee experience

There is an interesting tension to friendships at work—they are something we develop beyond our employer relationship but which contribute so much to how we feel about our employer relationship.

I would personally define a work friend as “someone whom I trust is loyal to me before our employer.” And work friends are not binary—Sias & Cahill (2009) neatly describe the stages of work friendship from coworker-acquaintance > friend > close friend > almost best friend.

Although there hasn’t been a ton of research into friendship at work, we do know that organisations and teams, at their core, are social systems. Everyone relies on these social systems to achieve work tasks—friendships are, quite simply, likely to help you be more productive.

But it’s not just about productivity. The need to belong and be accepted for your unique self is a fundamental human and work need, and what is a friend if not someone to whom you can expose your flaws and still have them love you anyway?

How to make friends at work

Much has been written about the impact of hybrid work on work relationships. Assuming we agree that remote work brings benefits we’d like to retain, here are some suggestions to build friendships that will work remotely and in person.

  • Examine your willingness to be vulnerable. Trust is the foundation of any relationship; you can slightly trust someone and be great coworkers—but not friends. And while we often think of trust as driven only by the trustworthiness of the other person, it’s a two-way street. The willingness to be vulnerable and trust people may help you progress past the coworker stage.
  • Don’t shy away from challenging, collaborative projects. Research shows that shared tough experiences are a great bonding agent. In fact, the silver lining of having a bad manager is that the shared negative experience will likely create better team friendships. Look for opportunities to share challenges with others.
  • Give friendship space to grow. A particular characteristic of friendships is that they grow by mutual choice, and gradually. This is something that can’t be rushed or forced. There has to be a choice to spend time with one another outside of the requirements of the role.
  • Schedule time for non-work catchups. Unsurprisingly, the amount of interaction people have contributes to developing friendships. In the remote-work world, that is something that doesn’t happen by accident anymore, although I’m not convinced that means it can’t happen. We need to be more deliberate about booking time with people that isn’t focused on achieving anything in particular.

Finally, make sure your work friendships don’t inadvertently contribute to workplace inequity

A word of caution. It’s been shown that being of the same race and gender has a greater influence on the likelihood to form a friendship than other factors such as role. And as we know, having these connections, in turn, impacts opportunity. Reflect on the coworkers you’re building friendships with—if fewer than half are of a different gender or race, you may want to consider branching out.

Building relationships with people who are different from you is a critical work skill. Here are some potential common ground topics to try that don’t have anything to do with race and gender:

  • What’s on your Spotify playlist right now
  • The latest show you’re enjoying on Netflix
  • An interesting article you read
  • Your favourite thing to do in your city
  • Recent places you’ve travelled to or are planning on travelling to

Friendship makes work so much more enjoyable and meaningful. Not only is it rewarding to receive friendship but it’s also a wonderful and fulfilling thing to give. Along with new skills and financial rewards, friendship is the great gift that our jobs should give our lives—don’t short-change yourself.

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