Having a best friend at work is a surprisingly powerful indicator of employee engagement, which ties to everything from profitability to productivity. But making friends at work can be fraught sometimes. Here's some research-driven advice.
1. A "best" friend is better than a "good" friend.
Best friend sounds so middle school—can't we all be friends? That's why the Gallup researchers who came up with this survey item call it "one of the most controversial of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups." However, when they substituted "best" with "good" or "close," the question lost its predictive validity. Seems there's something powerful about playing favorites, or maybe the trust and rapport implied by the word "best."
2. Bosses are a great place to start.
Generally folks higher up in organizations have fewer and weaker friendships—as they say, it's lonely at the top. And people rank interacting with their bosses at the very bottom of their preferred activities—below cleaning the house. But the rare manager who can make employees feel they care about them have happier and more productive companies. If you're the boss, or you have a boss, be genuine and be nice.
3. Limit cross-gender awkwardness.
Sexual harassment is the elephant in the room when women and men become friends at work, and it can have a very real chilling effect. In her new book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells an amusing anecdote about huddling in her mentor Larry Summer's hotel room until 3 a.m. working on a project, and then trying to sneak back to her own room without being seen. Here's a tip: Go ahead and befriend opposite-sex colleagues, but avoid hotel rooms and go out for coffee—not for a drink.
4. Hard times can bring you closer together.
In this long-term study on the development of friendships in the workplace, it was dealing with crises—whether a market crash or a death in the family—that turned coworkers into close friends. When you come through a rough patch, don't forget to thank the colleagues who helped you out, and use it as an opportunity to build trust.
5. Maintain relationships even when you change jobs.
Employee turnover is high, and sometimes unavoidable. Having a best friend at work is actually a great indicator of whether you'll stick with a company. But even after you leave, the genuine connections you make at work are an invaluable source of industry "weak ties" leading you to that next opportunity.
[Image: Flickr user State Library of Victoria Collections]