The workplace is one of the primary places people find friends. In fact, according to research, making friends at work is second only to making them in high school or college. But friendship has declined, and large numbers of people are reporting they don’t have enough friends and they’ve lost the connections that help them feel grounded, energized, and part of a community.
It is well known, too, that having a best friend at work is one of the primary reasons you’ll stay with an organization. Relationships are a key part of the value equation. People work for a sense of accomplishment and the opportunity to express talents, but also because they enjoy their colleagues and appreciate working side by side with coworkers.
There are a lot of headwinds to making friends from a distance. Remote work has plenty of advantages, but running into a colleague in the cafeteria isn’t one of them. Working away from the office removes the opportunity to chat with someone as you’re walking in together or to catch up informally during a quick break at the coffee machine.
Unfortunately, many people are lonely and feel they’re lacking adequate support from friends. A YouGov poll surveying nearly 1,200 individuals showed that 27% of millennials report having no close friends, and 22% report they have no friends at all; 15% of Gen Xers and 9% of baby boomers also report having a lack of close friends.
But having a best friend at work is still viable. It just takes a little more effort. Here’s why work is a great place to build relationships.
Friendships take time to develop
One of the best reasons it’s viable to have a best friend at work is one of the most important ingredients in forming relationships: time. Researchers who study friendship say it takes over 50 hours to build a close relationship. And work is the perfect place to do so.
Sociologically, proximity (either real or virtual) is the most important determinant of relationships. When you’re working with colleagues, you’re naturally spending a lot of time together, and this allows you to get to know people in so many ways. You learn what people are good at and what energizes them. You learn their moods and patterns of interaction. You learn about their lives and can relate to them about their kids or interests. Familiarity also tends to breed acceptance—the more you know someone, the more you understand where they’re coming from and you can empathize, appreciate, and forgive their foibles.
Depending on how long you stay with a company, your relationships there can outlast those in other parts of your life. Over a long tenure, some people know their coworkers longer than they’ve known their children. But even with a shorter tenure, work friends can be a source of continuity through things that happen outside of work like moves or boyfriends or even pandemics.
Friendships require a foundation of trust
Another reason work is a great place to make friends is the trust factor. True friendship is based on high levels of trust—knowing friends have your back, knowing they will keep confidences, knowing they will follow through and can be relied upon, knowing they have your best interests at heart.
In addition, humans tend to bond through hard times or through shared challenges, and work is often where people are tested. You and your friend both reported to a terrible boss for a season of your careers—and lived to tell about it. Or, you and your friend burned the midnight oil together when the project was going south, and you had to invent a new solution. Or, there was the time you and your colleague landed the biggest contract of the year and celebrated your success together. These are the kinds of situations on which friendship is built—so work is the venue where a lot of relationships are cemented.
Friendships can grow from common interests
Friends are also a special part of life because they can be formed around shared interests. Some studies have shown has shown people of similar personalities tend to choose similar careers. This isn’t a stretch to understand, but it’s interesting and has everything to do with friendship.
For example, those in professions like finance or tech may tend to be more analytically minded, while those who land in marketing or graphic development tend toward creative pursuits. Those in human resources, teaching, or helping professions may lean toward interests in interacting, guiding, and coaching. All of this means that work is a great venue for matching up with people who have common interests, because you tend to work most closely with those in your department or your field.
Of course, you want to branch out and have diversity of thought as well—because greater variety in your close relationships helps you stay aware of the world, helps you learn, and helps you empathize with many different people. Work works here as well, because it tends to be the place you’re most likely to connect with those who are different than you. Your local yoga studio, club, or outside-of-work friend group may attract people like you, but work puts you in touch with those from different backgrounds and different points of view.
Friendships can thrive from shared platforms
When you work at an organization together, you have the basis of a strong relationship, because you share a common language and know the same people. You can exchange notes about the latest software release your company is working on or commiserate about the newest reorganization which is affecting the company. You have shared experiences that give you a basis for conversation and the foundation to deepen the relationship as you share expectations, ideas, challenges and successes.
In addition, you have plenty of channels open to you. You can Slack or IM within shared platforms. You can naturally touch base before the meeting, or on a break. You’re working on a project and can chat about your common interests in tapping the spring sap to make maple syrup or your child’s spring break trip to Zion National Park.
Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.