Sometimes we feel vulnerable, and even lonely, at work. We feel drained, or burned out, and wonder if a new employer may make a difference. Despite companies best efforts to retain top talent via higher pay, better benefits, training, and more flexibility, there is an element to keeping people engaged in their work that is hard to quantify. After two years of pandemic living and working, as companies are doing all they can to hold onto coveted employees during this Great Resignation, the sentiments of engagement and belonging can be essential. Employees who feel they have a good friend at work are more likely to stay.
Many human resources experts and authors have encouraged employers to help workers find deeper meaning in their work and attain greater comfort in their roles as models for retention. We confirmed this notion with our network and clients in healthcare, education, front-line responders, and office workers. Then, when we asked why they’ve remained in their jobs, we consistently heard an extra sentiment: “Without my friends, I never would have gotten through this.” And, “I cannot tell you how much I leaned on my friends throughout this crazy time,” shared a nurse at a Boston area hospital. “The days were long, the work was really hard, but through the layers of PPE, I’d find my friends’ eyes and know I’d be OK.”
We’ve also been involved in several research studies asking participants about sources of resilience in recent times and have heard a chorus of the same sentiment “friends.”
Research has shown that workplace friends foster creativity and build trust between employees as they work together to help process stress, change, and other challenges. In our work, we’re invited to look at results from morale measurement tools like Gallup’s Q12 survey and Tiny Pulse, both of which seek data about work friendships as indicators of employee engagement and psychological commitment. For years, data has shown that the depth and quality of at work relationships are key considerations when employees have moments that may inspire them to leave for other opportunities. Now, understanding how workplace friendship are good for business seems more critical than ever.
As humans, we are social creatures. We want people to listen to us, to laugh with us, and make us feel included and supported. We get this from our friends and loved ones, but sometimes your network at home doesn’t understand enough of the context of a work situation to be of much comfort. While some people resist the idea that you can find a true friend at the workplace, our research tells another story. Through circumstances and experiences, positive and negative, friendships are naturally fostered.
With so much data indicating the merits of employee to employee friendships, how can leaders facilitate these personal interpersonal relationships?
Structure professional opportunities to learn and collaborate
While the value of workplace friendship has been encouraged in the past, employees may feel isolated in their roles and teams, especially if they are working remotely. However, company organized cross training, leadership development or upskilling programs not only develop a company’s human capital, they are opportunities to meet new people.
“One of my most trusted friends is someone I’d never had met unless we were both in a time-management class. That was 20 years ago” shared an executive in the consulting industry. Research has indicated that providing a context and opportunity for employees to meet, learn together, and build social networks and relationships, enhances collaborative engagement and teamwork in organizations.
Intentional engagement is key as organizations adapt to in-person, hybrid, and remote-work training and relationships, in many cases increasing opportunities for cross-training of employees. On a business level, training such as this builds depth of expertise across your workforce, not only enabling greater collaboration and relationship-building through understanding of multiple roles, but also providing a critical flexibility for the modern workforce. Therefore, adapted training models can provide a framework for engagement and collaboration while expanding networks for employees.
A lot has been said about the importance on allyship. Beyond a social justice term, we find it pertains to how we work and support one another, and even to feeling supported. In tenuous circumstances where we may feel like outsiders or are unsure of our places, allies create a feeling of a safe space inside our workplaces. Instead of feeling like we need to escape, we can trust and lean on friendly allies to help us plan an approach or vet out a response before we act. Allies can make very important friends.
A worker who feels anxious or alone may be scanning your company’s surface level diversity to see if there is anyone who looks like them that they may reach out to. Allyship arises in many forms and can help employees feel supported because others understand what they’re going through. To be seen as an ally goes beyond just being yourself. Individuals need to self-identify and signal their willingness to be one, which has many nuances. Companies who may have considered pulling back on their diversity, equity, and inclusion programming budgets should reconsider, both of these are means to cultivate behaviors that can foster allyship and friendship.
As opportunities to recruit arise, companies should consider if a new hire can add to the company’s diversity which, among many other benefits, can promote camaraderie and fellowship among current employees. Other company level actions may take the form of formal affinity or employee resource groups that promote allyship across the organization, as well as other forms of mentoring programs that can develop networks of employees and build work-based relationships.
Expressing praise and honest appreciation is an established means to make friends and influence people. According to a recent study, when an organization promotes the action of giving thanks, it strengthens relational bonds of their teams. When we detect expressions of gratitude from others, the value of our association and interactions with them goes up as well.
Not only do those who receive signals of gratitude report higher levels of experience well being, but they more likely to help others in the future which encourages camaraderie. Workers who practice gratitude also experience less aggression, and more empathy. All of these sentiments lay a good foundation for forging friendships.
On the giving side, getting into a habit of giving praise helps us to notice what we like in the people around us even more. What may have been transactional before gains a deeper associated meaning which can really help in building friendships. In addition, research has shown that there is a spiraling relationship to receiving and giving gratitude that generates increased personal satisfaction.
Whether gratitude is formally indoctrinated in a company program, or leaders are charged with finding opportunities to recognize efforts and contributions, organizations can foster the sentiment with deliberate encouragement. Knowing gratitude promotes both friendship and satisfaction of experience, there are clear benefits for companies to encourage this behavior.
Get back to social events
It used to be that company picnics and dinner parties were attended by employees and their families, however times changed, not to mention the impact COVID is still having on comfort with in-person gatherings. But humans have an inherent social need for belonging, whether at home or at work. As much as work opportunities may bring people together, relationship-building at work can still be difficult for people to do, and this is harder in remote and hybrid working environments. The act of breaking-bread together has fostered camaraderie for generations; it hasn’t stopped now.
Leaders can promote a culture of engagement by creating social areas, whether physical or virtual, via purely social activities. Hosting events for people to eat, drink, and laugh with one another is a relatively simple but effective way for people to get to know each other. If more structure is preferred, intentional social events such as general volunteer programs or promoting events like tree-planting and beach cleanups may be a foundation. Teams can encourage their members to bring a friend from other departments or similar concepts to further engage employees and foster relationships for employee support and stronger social systems.
If you have a friend you look forward to seeing at work, it’s like earning $100,000 more in salary each year. To others, a best friend at work is priceless. As organizations continue to position themselves for a future vision of what work will look like, and what their organizational priorities are, it is important to continue some of the less-tangible factors that can influence recruitment and retention. When workers are leaving their jobs in record numbers, or considering their long-term options within an industry, friendships and allies may influence those decisions. Perhaps it will be harder to leave a friend, or a network of allies and mentors. These are connections we can foster as leaders, making the experience, and the results, better for all.
Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.
Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.