When you ask people what they miss about working from home, it’s not the commute or the need to get dressed up. What they miss are the connection and interactions. The banter. The laughs. The conversations with their friends at work.
Yes, not just their work colleagues, but their friends. On this, the International Day of Friendship, it’s a great time to reflect on why having friends at work matters.
You often hear about the importance of culture, but does having friends at work help create a healthy, dynamic and productive work environment?
Workplaces are complex environments – bringing together a melting pot of people with varying ideas, assumptions, experiences, expectations and ambitions.
They can also be highly destructive. The damage that an unhealthy work environment can have on a person’s mental well-being is well known.
Some people believe that if a work environment is too collegiate, people will stop challenging each other, and consequently, ideas will not be robustly debated. On the contrary, hostile environments where a dominant person subjugates the opinions of others and is highly politicised isn’t healthy either.
If you want an engaged and productive workplace where ideas are constructively challenged and people are always encouraged to bring their best to work, having friendships helps.
Let me explain why.
Our brain very quickly assesses whether it sees someone as a ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. It sizes someone up. It makes a judgment about whether a person is ‘in my tribe’ or ‘outside my tribe’.
The brain then processes information according to which category we’ve put them in. In practical terms, this means that if two people are saying the same thing to you, and one person is considered your ‘foe’ and the other person your ‘friend’, you will interpret what they are saying differently.
You will more positively interpret the friend’s behaviour. You give them the benefit of the doubt and are interested in what they are saying. You are far less likely to do that for a foe.
At work, if you see other people as ‘foe’ you are more likely to misinterpret their intent, which in turn leads to distrust, disagreement and unhealthy competitive behaviour. None of which helps to build a collaborative and productive workplace.
In his book “Vital Friends: The People you can’t afford to live without”, Tom Rath shows that employees who have best friends at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Additionally, if they have at least three vital friends at work, they are 96% more likely to be satisfied with their lives.
As humans, we are hard-wired for connection. Not surprisingly, therefore, having friends at work makes you feel good. Your day feels better when you’ve connected with a friend. You also feel good when you go out of your way to do something nice for someone else. Helping others helps you realise the positive forces in your life, while connecting and sharing experiences and emotions feeds the body, mind and soul.
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Remember, good friends, don’t just agree with you. They challenge and inspire you to greater heights. They help you see things from different perspectives and to explore new ideas. It’s much easier to take input and feedback from a friend who you trust.
Similarly, having an affiliative and collaborative environment makes it easier for ideas to be debated, agreed on and progressed. As well, research has shown that cooperating with others activates the same reward circuitry in your brain as when you eat chocolate. So cooperating makes you feel good too.
As the Irish Poet, William Butler Yeats, once remarked, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” A great reminder as the workplace will always shift and people will come and go.