Do We Need Friends at Work?

I’ve met most of my close friends through schools and neighborhoods, but there is a critical quorum that I met at work. Most notably, Mr. Stevens. He was a summer associate at the consulting firm I worked at full time. We only dated for a few weeks at the end of the summer before he went back to graduate school. But clearly those three weeks were important.

So a recent op-ed, “My generation isn’t looking to make friends at work”, caught my attention. First, it has implications for employee engagement more broadly. Gallup’s engagement research has consistently shown a very significant difference between people who have a best friend at work and people who don’t. A workplace where six out of ten employees have a best friend vs. two out of ten have a best friend is 36% safer, has 7% more engaged customers, and is 12% more profitable. Second, it is a bit counterintuitive to data showing why people work, particularly women. Nearly two-thirds say the social aspect of a job is a “major reason” why they work.

That said, all of this research was prior to the pandemic, which has fundamentally reshaped many workplaces. The op-ed, which proved to be one of the most read and controversial this year, merely pointed out the obvious that “many workplaces will never be the social hubs” they once were. On the most basic level, the new normal of hybrid work means that we’ll be spending less time with our colleagues.” Her conclusion is that people, particularly young people moving to a new city, need to rely on other ways to make friends.

While I don’t disagree with the author’s main point, I do think she misses something critical. You do not need an office to have an environment at work conducive to connection and collaboration, the key ingredients that can lead to friendship. Her generation is, in fact, particularly adept at making and keeping friends digitally. I can certainly point to people I’ve met through work, that I rarely see in person, who I consider a friend.

But building connection, community and collaboration digitally is not as easy as it sounds and that’s why many leaders want people back in the office. It’s their cultural comfort zone. I have a COO friend whose CEO is demanding people return because “it’s better for culture.” A significant number are leaving instead. I think more CEOs are in the “imploring” state, really hoping people will return – but not getting very far. It was even a topic at Davos this week, with leaders finally admitting that forcing staff to return is unrealistic. “The genie is out of the bottle. Anyone who tries to put it back in is maybe not being realistic about what’s actually happened,” stated one banking executive.

The result is that many leaders are going to have to get good at digital community building, fast. It’s something I think about a lot at WeSpire. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don’t. We had some tough decisions this week at work and one of my team members said, “this is one of those weeks when I wish we weren’t all remote.” I wholeheartedly agreed. We used to hold Town Halls weekly, then we got feedback it was too frequent and moved it to monthly. That was too far apart and now we are trying bi-weekly. Our Boston-based team members got together and volunteered this week, posting photos having fun together. I was so glad they did it. But how did it make team members outside of Boston feel? Positive? Excluded? It’s a question on my mind. What can we be doing that gives everyone those personal connection opportunities?

Given the richness my own work friends have added to my life, I really hope people who work at WeSpire make a friend at WeSpire. As leaders, we just have to think even more creatively and deliberately about how to make that happen.

Quote of the Week: “Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.”

Sheryl Sandberg

Posted June 3rd, 2022 – Written by Susan Hunt Stevens

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