While the average person now has 338 Facebook friends, he also only has one friend he considers close. In an era of ubiquitous technology that puts our friends a message or call away, how have our relationships devolved?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts social connection just after security and physical needs. That means connection with other human beings comes second only to our need for food, shelter, and rest. Once our basic needs are met, we should be shifting to getting to know others more deeply, but we aren’t.
Instead, we’re grappling with a loneliness epidemic, and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says the workplace is partly to blame. “What’s striking about the workplace is people spend a significant amount of their time there — eight hours a day, but in many cases more,” he said. “For people who may not have a lot of social ties outside of work, your place of employment can sometimes be your primary social circle. This is why the workplace is so important.”
He says most people want to work toward a greater purpose with people they like, but the majority wouldn’t call their colleagues friends. And that can have big consequences — on both your engagement and your career.
Loneliness Can’t Be a Long-Term Plan
The lack of friendships at work is somewhat surprising as Millennials, the largest segment of the workforce, seek connections. While Baby Boomers feel friendships have no impact on their performance, Millennials place friendships in high esteem. As friendships become normalized and employees seek out places where they can be themselves, the expectation of community in the workplace will heighten. Betsy Wecker, insights director at strategy firm Department26, said, “Millennials don’t believe in money; they believe in themselves.”
Wecker explains that Millennials value experiences over traditional forms of wealth. Those experiences includes friendships and connections, not simply learning through textbooks or training programs. That means an inclusive and engaging culture will no longer be the exception.
And the high value Millennials place on work friendships makes sense: Inc. reported that office friendships increase job satisfaction by 25 percent. While some want to put their head down and work hard to get ahead, friendships at work can be even more effective at fueling their progress.
Gallup found that those who have a best friend at work were 43 percent more likely to have been praised at work in the past week and 37 percent more likely to have a champion for their development. The organization says that while attention is paid to employees’ loyalty to a specific company, businesses can’t afford to overlook employees’ loyalty to each other. Those who decide not to leave their companies often do so because of deep relationships with their co-workers.
Why Workplace Friendships Matter on a Personal Level
And that’s because it all comes down to the personal. “While the quality of their friendships might not matter to the executive team, it can boost the quality of most employees’ work,” says Isa Watson, the founder and CEO of workplace engagement platform Envested. “It creates connectivity, and the more you grow in a company, having a friend in the office as you’re putting out fires does a lot for your well-being. Friendships also provide emotional cover that helps you stay focused and motivated.”
Friendships at work can also help you find your way forward and gather information. One study found that employers deem “soft skills” as important as technical skills, yet most employees were considered lacking in this area. Work friendships help people strengthen their soft skills — such as communicating, collaborating, and listening — and demonstrate them in the workplace. Building stronger connections with people and developing empathy toward them can increase your awareness of how people behave and what motivates them, making you a stronger potential leader.
Watson says that the EQ benefits of work friendships don’t end with empathy; employees who stand in someone else’s shoes gain more diverse perspectives. Diverse perspectives, in turn, result in better decision-making at work — the more informed we are about a particular choice and its possible outcomes, the more likely we are to make the best decision for our team. In fact, diverse teams make better decisions 87 percent of the time — how much better would your decision-making skills be if you had a wider circle of work friends?
Making Friends at Work
Making friends as an adult is difficult. “We’re not in the same forced environments we were in when we were younger to make friends,” Watson says. “But mutual interests are what connect people across ages or stages of life. And common interests boost interactions organically.”
One way employees make friends at work is by capitalizing on those shared interests. Do you like biking? Are you a “Star Wars” aficionado? Are you a budding yogi? By bringing people together who are interested in the same things, you can spark instant connections. Employees at one advertising agency created “Mad Men” lunches to gather fans — and critics — of the show over food; another company instituted coffee hours to allow people to mingle with people from other departments (without necessarily talking about work).
Another thing to remember is that authenticity attracts the same. Many people feel they have to act like someone else at work to get ahead or establish connections with others, but those are tenuous, fragile connections that aren’t likely to last — or truly make you feel included. Instead, focus on allowing people to see your vulnerable side. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, said, “Vulnerability is the key to emotional bonding, without which relationships tend to feel superficial and meaningless.”
Trust isn’t built in a day, and neither are friendships. While you made friends during recess in school, making friends at work is a long-term investment — but a worthwhile one. From making you happier at work to increasing your EQ, work friendships come with a real ROI.