Remember the friends you made in the early days of your career? You exchanged confidences, swapped gossip, has discussions involving this interesting new concept called “work” and at the end of the month, you went out and blew up your salaries together. Most of these friends may have been lost to time and performance appraisals, but the memory is kept alive by every fresh batch of trainees who join the organisation, who do exactly the same things you did.
Friendships come and go, but they’re very important while they’re there. In the initial stages of their career, fresh out of college, people are used to spending much of their time with friends. Surveys have found close friendships promote workplace engagement, which is a measure of the dedication and enthusiasm people feel towards their job. Which is why engagement studies commissioned by employers now have the question, ‘do you have a best friend at work?’. If you do, you’re more likely to enjoy your work and stay with the organisation.
In his book Vital Friends, American author Tom Rath looks at eight roles that friends play at work. The first and most common is that of a companion, those friends you call first with your news. The second are connectors, those who introduce you to others, a fairly important role when it comes to networking. Then there are the energisers, who give you a boost when you’re down and navigators, who you go to for advice. Champions are the loyalists who can be trusted to stand up for you and collaborators are those with similar interests. At the higher end are mind-openers (who expand your horizons) and builders (who motivate you to achieve more). One friend rarely plays all these roles, which is why most people have several.
If you have only one friend at work and that person leaves, it can result in a dramatic drop in engagement levels, which is why it is best to have at least three good friends at the workplace. Most companies spend time and effort trying to increase employee loyalty to the organisation. According to Rath, they should foster loyalty between employees instead. “Close friendships are one of the best predictors of attendance, retention and satisfaction. Office spaces can promote friendships by creating social spaces where people can gather informally and converse,” he says.
Rath, who was with The Gallup Organisation, a pioneer in engagement surveys, did not have too many takers when he first put forth these ideas. Senior executives, for whom friendships had become irrelevant, believed the time spent on socialising was time that should be spent on work. They also worried about the formation of cliques. “The problem was mostly with top management,” says Rath. “With age, people give less importance to workplace friendships. They constantly compete with their peers, so they isolate themselves. Their friendships are outside of work. CEOs don’t have friends lest they be accused of favouritism.”
Ravi Chauhan, formerly the CEO of Nortel India, believes the most useful friendships at work are not the ones based on commonality, but those that promote diversity: “People at work need to learn from each other and gain new perspectives. That’s more important than going for a beer together after work.”
Have friendships taken a beating in the wake of the pandemic? Face-to-face interactions are certainly important when you’re making friends, but after that, phone calls, e-mail, WhatsApp and Zoom work just as well. The most productive friendships at work can be across geographies, when people in offices from different parts of the world connect. These friendships may not endure once you leave the organisation, but they can create magic while you’re there.