Why your in-office friendships still matter
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when going out to lunch, day after day, with the same group of colleagues was as mundane a part of daily life as the morning meeting or evening commute. But after six months of eating sad desk salads alone, the idea of lunch with our work clique has never felt so exciting.
As we’ve been working from our kitchen tables, many of our relationships with colleagues have been atrophying.
It’s a phenomenon that has positives: the break-up of work cliques means the formerly left-out may have more opportunities to join the ‘in-crowd’ – or maybe there’s no longer an in-crowd at all. But there are drawbacks to drifting away from your work buddies, too. Experts suggest that, while our work-based friendships are generally our most delicate ones, they’re also some of the most impactful on our overall happiness.
Remote work has changed the dynamic of our work relationships. We can – and, in many cases, should – be trying to keep those friendships going, or even spark new ones. But as our offices operate online, that’s easier said than done.
‘Friendships of convenience’
“Work is the number one place where people make friends,” says Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time. “It’s also the place where most friendships end, because people change jobs.”
Compared to friendships that begin outside work – which are often stronger and more sustainable, thanks to a foundation of common interests and deep personal knowledge – work friendships are often tenuous, because they tend to be built almost exclusively on shared circumstances and casual interactions. These relationships with colleagues are usually what Ho Kwan Cheung, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Albany in New York, calls “friendships of convenience, for lack of a better term. It’s the person you talk to when you take a coffee break, or go to the pantry. The person who’s readily available when you have a problem because their desk is next to yours”.
And now, without those opportunities for interaction while we’ve been working from home, many have found work friendships fading; for many, finding other ways to maintain them virtually has not been a major priority while navigating the upheaval of recent months.
“Work friendships die pretty quickly with a lack of shared experiences,” says Nelson. “Unless you work to create a new pattern and way of being together. Even six months in, a lot of people feel like the shift to remote work is temporary, so we’re not treating it with intention. I think a lot of people’s brains haven’t made that adjustment of, ‘OK, I have to be intentional if I want this friendship to continue’.”
Pleasure and productivity
There’s good reason to invest in your work friendships, especially now, according to Cheung, whose research centres on workplace discrimination and employee wellbeing. “They’re not a distraction,” she says. “A lot of us derive most of our social needs from those work relationships. They’re what give people a sense of belonging in their job. Sometimes, there’s an idea that when you’re spending time with friends at work you won’t get anything done, but the research says that employee happiness depends on social interactions.”
Without opportunities for office interaction while we’ve been working from home, many have found work friendships fading
So, too, does productivity. In a survey of more than 12,000 workers in the US, Germany and India, management-consulting firm Boston Consulting Group found that more than half the respondents who transitioned to working remotely during the pandemic reported a drop in productivity when it came to collaborative tasks – things like working in teams and interacting with clients. The analysis showed a direct link between productivity and social connection. Among those who said they felt less connected to their colleagues since transitioning to remote work, 80% said they were also less productive.
Being a member of a work clique can also contribute to professional fulfilment. Results from a Gallup survey of US employees showed that more than half of respondents who said they had a work best friend also reported feeling passionate about their job, with a strong connection to their company. Only 10% of people who didn’t have a close friend at work could say the same.
“Work friendships are very important to job satisfaction,” says Cheung. And while “job satisfaction doesn’t always predict performance, the more relational-oriented your work is, the more it does. One example is creative work, or anything that involves creative problem-solving. When you’re satisfied with your work and you enjoy being with your co-workers, it makes you more creative and a better collaborator”.
It may be a while until we can return to work social events and happy hours that keep our office friendships thriving (Credit: Alamy)
In a 2016 study published in Personnel Psychology, a group of professors headed by Jessica Methot of Rutgers University showed that groups of colleagues who thought of one another as friends scored higher on performance reviews. The researchers offered a number of possible explanations: people were more likely to ask for help and seek advice from colleagues they considered to be friends, informal networks made information-sharing more efficient and morale was high overall.
In short, a sense of belonging among your colleagues makes you better at your job, and letting those friendships lapse during the pandemic could make your work suffer.
Killing the clique isn’t all bad
There’s a reason the word “clique” summons memories of secondary-school mean girls, however. While the benefits of being a member of a group of work friends are well documented, such friendships can have downsides. After all, for a clique to exist, some people need to belong while others have to be left out.
In a 2018 study entitled Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business wrote that, “anyone who has endured the social complexities of a school cafeteria can attest that close and exclusive friendship groups can lead to perceptions of exclusion. This awareness of others’ friendships can be detrimental to outsiders and can have negative consequences for organizational functioning.” So, while cliques are good for the people in them, those who are excluded or feel ostracised by them don’t experience the same benefits.
This is even more problematic when you consider the people who are most often left out. Cheung explains that cliques are often quicker to form between people of shared racial and cultural backgrounds, and if an office isn’t very diverse, that means people get marginalised. “We know that a lot of the relationship formation opportunities single out women and minorities, because you’re not invited to lunch or happy hour,” she says.
Remote work may be killing the clique, but that could also mean more opportunity for those who’ve been more socially isolated in the past to make in-roads
Remote work may be killing the clique, but that could also mean more opportunity for those who’ve been more socially isolated in the past to make in-roads. “Now, it’s interesting because [lunches and happy hours] aren’t a thing anymore. Everyone’s at home and that has levelled the playing field.”
Of course, building those bridges from a home office isn’t simple, either. In transitioning to a remote work environment, we’ve lost many of the informal interactions and casual moments that lead to friendships, and while that means “no one is being ostracised, it’s also harder for relationships to form or continue”, adds Cheung.
‘It’s going to feel a little awkward’
This doesn’t mean that your work friendships are doomed, or that you’ll never be one of the most popular colleagues. But, like most things in a post-pandemic world, bonding with your colleagues now requires a slightly different approach.
Friendships have a formula, says Nelson, based on three main factors: consistency, vulnerability and positivity. “You need all three to create a friendship,” she explains. “The workplace gave us the consistency piece. We didn’t have to invite each other to come to work, so the consistency of seeing each other every day was built-in. As long as we got to know people – that’s the vulnerability piece – and enjoyed it, which gave us the positivity, friendships formed.”
It’s still possible to have a solid social life among your colleagues, adds Nelson, “but you have to be waymore intentional about it.” That means establishing consistency on your own, maybe by committing to daily lunchtime phone calls with your work buddy, or planning Monday morning Zoom catch-ups as a chance to chat about the weekend.
Work friendships tend to be more tenuous, since they're driven by proximity – but they're still vital for fulfilling our social needs (Credit: Alamy)
It can also be helpful, Cheung says, to look for the remote version of a casual moment by the office coffee pot. “Sometimes when you’re waiting for the rest of the people to sign onto a Zoom meeting, you can chit-chat a little,” she says. “It’s possible to find and create those kinds of informal situations, even when you’re working from home, like starting a separate Slack chat.”
And as for taking the opportunity to join a clique, she adds, simply putting in the effort to connect with a colleague on an informal level can go a long way. “It’s a matter of creating new bonds, when people aren’t strictly on the clock,” she says. Interaction that feels personal – just striking up a conversation about pandemic baking or sharing links to funny TikToks, for instance – “makes people feel a sense of belonging”.
“It might feel forced, but that’s fine,” she says. “When we start to open up, it helps people feel seen, increases our appreciation for one another and helps us enjoy each other. We have to realise friendships don’t just happen to us. You can’t just focus on work and expect to feel close to people down the road. Yes, it’s going to feel a little awkward, but relational health, work productivity and happiness comes on the other side of that awkwardness.”