Full-time employees in the U.S. generally spend between 35 and 50 hours a week at work, and that substantial percentage of time passes more quickly and more pleasantly when you have an amicable relationship with the people you see in the office every day.
Some professionals prefer to keep their close friendships out of the workplace, which is a perfectly legit stance to take. But as long as you’re able to establish and observe certain boundaries and guidelines, forming genuine friendships with your coworkers can enrich both your lives and even improve your on-the-job performances.
Read on for an overview of work friendships, including how to build them, why they’re important and where they differ from purely-social relationships.
Can work colleagues be friends?
In the quickest and simplest terms: yes, of course coworkers can form friendships. In fact, it’s advisable to do so, as workplace relationships often boost job satisfaction and overall happiness levels.
That said, friendships at work tend to follow different rules than those that develop in totally social situations. Most notably, hierarchy becomes a major mitigating factor in these relationships. Employees who are at the same seniority level — more or less — can forge friendships, but it’s generally discouraged for supervisors to consider their reports their “friends."
Ask A Manager expert Alison Green explains that managers must accept the fact that their relationships with their colleagues will by nature include specific boundaries, and that the power dynamics between supervisors and their reports make a fully-equal friendship prohibitive, if not impossible. Also, managers need to be able to give their employees objective (and sometimes negative) feedback, and Green warns that a personal friendship often complicates that process. “You might think that you can do that while still being friends, but you probably can’t, despite your best intentions – and even if you really can, others won’t believe you can, so you’ll still be dealing with a perception problem,” she cautions.
Why is it important to have friends at work?
Plenty of people prefer to keep their friendships and their work relationships completely separate, and that’s a valid boundary to set. But for others, cultivating connections with the people they see on a daily basis increases their comfort level at work, makes them feel more personally and professionally engaged and fortifies work-related team dynamics.
Those who form work friendships in the early stages of their career often leave those starter jobs with relationships that last a lifetime, and senior workers can look to their colleagues-turned-friends for support, advice and connections.
How do you build work friendships?
In some ways, offices feel like ideal breeding grounds for friendships; like classrooms and club meetings, professional environments contain groups of people with at least one common interest and/or common experience (the company/industry/project they’re working on, etc). But if you’re new to the workforce or new to the idea of making friends with your colleagues, the prospect can feel a bit daunting. To get you started, we’ve got three easy launch points for striking up office acquaintanceships with the potential to bloom into full-fledged friendships.
1. Start small, with conversations over coffee or lunch during the work day.
If you meet someone at work who seems interesting and you would like to start up a conversation, there’s no need to invite them on an extracurricular “friend date.” Kick things off in a low-key way by chatting over coffee or lunch in the break room. If your workplace hosts employee happy hours or other similar social gatherings, these are also prime spots for getting to know your work cohorts in a more personal way.
2. Project a positive attitude.
There’s definitely something appealing about a workplace ally with whom you can share all of your professional grievances, both major and minor. But if you only talk with your coworkers in the interest of airing complaints, you’ll likely discover that focusing entirely on negatives will limit the friendship’s growth potential. Try to also connect with colleagues about things that make you happy (whether in your work life or in your personal life).
3. Support and encourage your workplace friends when they’re taking on big projects or pursuing a promotion.
While friends, partners and family members are often glad to hear about your work triumphs and to celebrate promotions, your coworkers have an inside perspective on life at the office, so the ability to count on the support and encouragement of your colleagues is unquestionably valuable and often leads to genuine friendships.
5 ground rules for healthy workplace friendships
1. Don’t allow friendships to inappropriately affect workplace choices and opportunities.
If you find yourself in a position to choose team members for a project, try your best to include a mix of your own office pals and other talented and qualified colleagues with whom you don’t have a close, personal friendship. Cliquey behavior often becomes a major issue where work relationships are concerned, and you can easily sidestep those problems by maintaining an inclusive attitude.
2. Remember that the nature of workplace friendships makes them inherently different from social friendships.
It’s certainly true that workplace friendships often expand and blossom into intimate bonds over time. However, because your professional relationships shouldn’t be compromised by your personal connections, your friendships at work will likely need to involve boundaries that differ from those present in your wholly-social friendships... and that’s OK!
3. Get to know colleagues outside of your own team.
An easy way to avoid the cliquey aspects of workplace friendships involves seeking out and cultivating relationships with people outside of your own team or department. Befriending individuals who work for your company but don’t collaborate with you directly provides a useful degree of separation that can make it easier to develop connections that aren’t directly related to a prescribed working relationship.
4. Feel free to connect with work friends on social media, but do it mindfully.
It’s common for employees to add their work buddies as friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, if you choose to take this route, you’ll be wise to keep an eye on the content you post and to safeguard against putting anything on social media that you wouldn’t want widely-known throughout your company.
5. Don’t build friendships that rely on workplace gossip and complaints.
As we mentioned previously, a workplace friendship that entirely relies on office-related gripes may not ultimately serve either party, as the benefits of commiseration can easily be outweighed by compounding negativity. Along the same lines, friendships based on a shared love for spreading gossip about other colleagues have a high likelihood of compromising the reputations of everyone involved. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from talking about work with your work friends — just be aware of your language choices and try to avoid focusing exclusively on the downsides of your workplace.