Mention the phrase “work friends” to one of your colleagues, and you’ll likely hear about cringe-worthy examples of excessive water cooler gossip and departmental cliques. Admittedly, workplace relationships can be tricky.
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore workplace friendships, or worse yet, discourage them altogether. With the right structure in place, workplace friendships can not only boost employee morale—they can boost your business’s bottom line in a big way.
The ROI of Work Friends
A recent ‘Health and Well-Being Study’, conducted by OC Tanner, draws the conclusion that friendships at work aren’t just desirable, they can be profitable. The data displayed a much higher sense of belonging and loyalty to a company among those employees who had a close friend at work; 20 percent higher satisfaction rates occurred among those who valued work relationships. This same group of more-satisfied employees also reported feeling recognized at a higher rate than those without work friends.
While happy employees can lead to a strong corporate culture, they may also cut costs. This Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article reveals how face-to-face communication can be 34 times more effective than asking for something via an email. With friendships abundant in the workplace, the opportunity to save on back-and-forth—and really get things done—is unlimited.
How Managers Can Encourage Bonding
Most friendships outside of work happen when people who know each other just “click.” But how can you replicate this in the office environment?
Genelle Girthoffer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Director of Human Resources for Mosaic, stresses the importance of both formal and informal efforts to build comradery. She suggests a marriage of formal programs and cultural norms to create a “friendly” workplace.
“The primary way to support healthy workplace friendships is to have clear cultural expectations, which include inclusiveness, support, open communication, and collaboration. It’s also critical for management to quickly and respectfully address those that do not abide by these norms. It’s one thing to have a sign on the wall that says ‘Live our culture every day;’ it’s entirely another to lead by example and hold people accountable.”
Everyone needs to be on board with the efforts, as well. A lack of buy-in from front-line managers can send the wrong message and may create barriers to collaboration, stresses Wilson. Consistent implementation is a must.
Managers can encourage healthy friendships at work by setting the example themselves.
Setting Healthy Boundaries at Work
What about the fear of work friends becoming too cozy? Given that there is a fine line between productive friendships and those that might lead to problems, management must always be aware of the potential for fraternization, inappropriate relationships, or even sexual harassment.
Suzanne Cramer, Director of Human Resources for the Rutter’s Companies, explains that it is vital for all employees to be treated equally and with respect. “If management does have friendships with peers and employees, they should always be kept to a professional level when operating in the work environment. Failure to do so may lead to the illusion of favoritism or cause others in the workplace to feel uncomfortable. These friendships, however, can benefit the workplace by increasing productivity, collaboration, and thought generation by like-minded people who are naturally drawn to one another as they have the same values.”
C-Levels Need Alliances, Too
If you thought the perks of having your workforce buddy-up ended at middle management, think again. The benefits of forming relationships at even the highest levels of the organization are significant. Cramer has seen the value of friendships at her organization, noting that many of the managers throughout their 70 locations are friends with one another. Bonding over shared experiences gives them ample opportunity to support one another as they work through difficult challenges. The type of work environment that sustains friendships keeps communication fluid from the top down.
Even C-level executives need friendships in the office.
Help Fostering Friendships is Key
Now that it’s been established that working friendships are a valuable part of any healthy corporate culture, what about those employees who find it difficult to connect? To nurture relationships without overstepping, Girthoffer uses a “buddy” system
These mentoring programs can be used to pair a newly-hired employee with a well-vetted, more experienced associate to make navigation of company culture an enjoyable process. “For a mentoring program to be successful, it’s mission critical to select the appropriate person to be the buddy. A rigorous selection procedure should be utilized to ensure that you’re utilizing those resources that will help to emulate the culture you’re trying to create or maintain.”
Girthoffer continues by explaining how the selection process could work. Human resources staff should start by choosing candidates that do the following:
- Emulate the culture you are trying to create and maintain on a consistent basis
- See the value in investing time into a new hire to help connect them to others in the workplace
- Stand out as an informal leader
- Are good active listeners
- Maintain confidentiality and have the discernment to know when to keep new hire issues private or escalate them to a member of management
Once a handful of candidates have been identified, they can be finalized much in the same way as a job interview. Girthoffer recommends preparing a list of behavioral-based questions that hone in on the ability to develop and support others. Other ideas include:
- Seeking examples of when they have stepped-up to coach colleagues in their current or previous workplace
- Probing for occasions where they have had to give candid feedback and examples of how they have partnered with others to accomplish goals.
- Conduct internal reference checks by speaking with the person’s manager and a few of their peers to validate that this is a good selection.
“Once the buddy system is in place, it’s wise to conduct periodic re-checks with the mentors to be sure that they understand their role, and that the relationship with their protégé is positive and meaningful,” stresses Girthhoffer. It’s recommended that managers periodically review the results of the program with the new hire as well to ensure a good match and a successful adjustment period.
She also echoes the sentiment of the OC Tanner study, believing that work friends can contribute to better retention and job satisfaction. “If you enjoy the company of those that you spend your day with, you’re much more likely to take on additional assignments, lend a helping hand, and have a little fun while you’re on the job. I’ve seen work teams accomplish amazing things when they are in an environment where they feel that it is safe to share their ideas with people that respect and care for them.”
Let Them Lead
At the end of the day, it’s up to management to set a shining example of the type of friendships that benefit the company — and each employee. Simple acts of day-to-day camaraderie might show this best. Cramer reiterates that these acts are necessary for work life balance. “Having lunch or a coffee break with someone that shares your passion for the company and understands the issues, achievements and idiosyncrasies of the environment where you spend a third of your day helps to keep you grounded. These friendships are a building block of the bigger picture giving employees the freedom to vent and celebrate when needed in a safe space.”