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Lessons Learned

Why Having Friends At Work Is So Important

New research shows that Americans are less likely to have friends at work than in the past, but it's crucial to our happiness.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

Fact: we spend most of our days at work. The American Time Use survey found that employed persons between the ages of 25 and 54 spend an average of 8.7 hours working or in work-related activities, and 7.7 hours sleeping. But the reality for many is that the workweek extends more than the standard 40 hours, and the average U.S. employee only takes about half (51%) of their eligible paid time off.

Given all that time spent in close proximity to colleagues, it’s surprising that Americans are less likely to have friends at work now than in years past. As Adam Grant notes in his column in the New York Times:

Once, work was a major source of friendships. We took our families to company picnics and invited our colleagues over for dinner. Now, work is a more transactional place. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form bonds. We have plenty of productive conversations but fewer meaningful relationships.

Grant cites a study that indicates 40% of startups are formed through founders' friendships. But other studies show that not only are we less likely to forge friendships in the office, we tend to eschew the niceties of interaction in favor of productivity. That’s due to a few factors, including shortened job tenures (these people will be out of my life in less than four years), the rise of social media (I can Skype and message all my high school and college BFFs!), and the increasing blur between work and personal life (I need to keep some time to myself).

Why We Should Stop Trying To Keep Work And Life Separate

Separation of work and life is important, but so is happiness. In a quest for a happy workplace that boosts engagement as well as the bottom line, workplace experts have measured all manner of things, from salaries to feedback to mentorship opportunities, and suggest a variety of fixes. Unfortunately, none of those add up to what well-being experts consider a thriving life. Indeed, they say that meaningful work, leisure time, and positive emotions can’t hold a candle to relationships.

Those at work whom we see daily have the potential to increase our happiness as much as earning $100,000 more per year.

The good news, writes Jessica Amortegui, is that making friends doesn’t have to come at the expense of meeting goals at work. Science has discovered how to foster closeness and break down social and emotional barriers in less than 45 minutes.

One study found that skipping the small talk and focusing on self-disclosure and nonwork-related topics can forge a closeness that makes coworkers more collaborative, productive, and accountable. Another survey of global workers found that over 26% said discussing success with colleagues motivates them.

As Amortegui notes:

Workplaces that convert their employees’ untenable ties into the durable bonds shared by fast friends will have cultures and communities that are alive and generative—in one word, thriving. As denizens of these communities, we will be doing something even more powerful than bringing our lives and souls with us to work: We will be sharing them with friends.

How To Make Friends At Work

Those are pretty compelling reasons to get closer to our colleagues. But it’s more challenging for adults, especially in the workplace, because our guard is up and we don’t want to reveal vulnerability, because it might reflect badly on us later.

Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, told Fast Company in a recent interview, "Vulnerability is the key to emotional bonding, without which relationships tend to feel superficial and meaningless."

That can be had from experiences where we are forced to rely on each other. Working on a project together is one way. An activity that some dread—the corporate retreat—is another, because completing ropes courses or even improv sessions can foster bonding in a way that conversations can not.

In the rush to bond, there are some things to keep in mind, not the least of which is how much time you have to invest. Katherine Crowley, author of Working for You Is Killing Me, told Fast Company, "Becoming friends is a longer-term proposition and should be done over time."

Finding common ground can certainly help make an initial connection, but oversharing is a no-no. Avoid talking about romantic relationships, at least in the beginning. And be mindful of personal space. Taking a friendship from the office to the outside world is a big step in the relationship. Start by going out to lunch or commuting together before making the leap to evening and weekend engagements.

Finally, Jane Sunley, founder and CEO of the HR consultancy Purple Cubed, reminds us that gossip isn't a good way to fast track friendships, it only fosters a negative environment. "You may be finding rapport with some people, but you’re alienating everyone else," she says, so stick to positive interactions and avoid polarizing discussions that may pit you against your potential new pal.

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