Scholars of happiness have found that close relationships are one of the critical ingredients of a contented life. What is true in general is also true of the workplace, according to research by Gallup. The pollster finds that having a “best friend at work” is closely associated with all manner of good things, from greater employee engagement to higher retention and better safety records.
At some level, that is unremarkable. Spending time with people you like makes most things more appealing, including work. If a job is sufficiently humdrum, camaraderie among colleagues can be the main draw. The support of friends can also encourage people to try new things. A study from 2015 by Erica Field of Duke University, and her co-authors, looked at the impact of business training given to Indian women. Women who attended the course with a friend were more likely to end up taking out loans than those who came alone.
The reverse also applies. Antagonistic relationships with co-workers are always likely to make working life miserable. A study conducted by Valerie Good of Grand Valley State University found that loneliness has an adverse effect on the performance of salespeople. Among other things, they start spending more on wining and dining their customers. The only thing worse than a salesperson who sees you as a way to make money is one who wants your company.
So friends matter. The problems come when managers see the words “higher employee engagement” and leap to the conclusion that they should try to engineer work friendships. In a report published last year Gallup gave the example of an unnamed organisation which has a weekly companywide meeting that spotlights one employee’s best friend at work. It’s not known if, in the Q&A, others pop up to sob: “But I thought we were best friends at work.”
Startups also offer services to encourage work friendships. One monitors the depth of connections between people in different teams. It identifies shared interests (gluten-free baking, say, or workplace surveillance) between employees who don’t know each other and arranges meetings between them. You thought life was bad? At least you are not making crumpets with a stranger in finance.
It is a mistake for managers to wade into the business of friend-making, and not just because it royally misses the point. The defining characteristic of friendship is that it is voluntary. Employees are adults; they don’t need their managers to arrange play-dates. And the workplace throws people together, often under testing conditions: friendships will naturally follow.
The bigger problem is that workplace friendships are more double-edged than their advocates allow. They can quickly become messy when power dynamics change. The transition from friend to boss, or from friend to underling, is an inherently awkward one (“This is your final warning. Fancy a pint?”).
And friendships have the potential to look a lot like cronyism. A clever study by Zoe Cullen of Harvard Business School and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of University of California, Berkeley, found that employees’ social interactions with their managers could give their career prospects a boost relative to others.
The researchers looked at promotions of smokers and non-smokers who worked for a large bank in South-East Asia, hypothesising that sharing smoking breaks with managers who also indulged might give workers a leg up. And so it did. Smokers who moved from a non-smoking boss to a puffer were promoted more quickly than those who moved to another non-smoker. The authors found that social interactions did not just help smokers; socialising between male managers and male employees played a large role in perpetuating gender pay gaps. If firms are going to make friendship their business, they should worry about its downsides, too.
Companies should facilitate interactions between employees, particularly in a world of hybrid and remote working. Social gatherings and buddy systems are reasonable ways to encourage colleagues to meet each other and to foster a culture. But a high-quality work relationship does not require friendship. It requires respect for each other’s competence, a level of trust and a desire to reach the same goal; it doesn’t need birthday cards and a shared interest in quiltmaking. Firms should do what they can to encourage these kinds of relationships. If individuals want to take it further, it’s entirely up to them. ■
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Who is the most important person in your company? (Sep 14th)
Networking for introverts: a how-to guide (Sep 7th)
The best bosses know how to subtract work (Aug 31st)
Also: How the Bartleby column got its name