We don’t choose our coworkers, but they are the people with whom we pass the majority of our time. Modern Americans spend more than half their waking lives at their jobs, and more time per week with their coworkers than with their spouses, families, and friends. It’s only natural that many of us end up developing friendships with those people who share our workspace. After all, they hear our personal phone calls and commiserate over bad bosses. Having friends at work can make the days a little fuller and brighter, but if the professional gets a little too personal, they can also have dangerous career consequences.
You’ve Gotta Have Friends
Work friends may be individuals who have been close pals for years, or they may have little in common besides sharing a cubicle. In an office setting, most “friends” fall into the more superficial category of friendship—they’re people we chat with before meetings or enjoy a coffee break with, but don’t have much of a relationship with outside work. Although work friends may know a little about each other’s lives, they’ve often not met each other’s outside friends or significant others, have not been to each other’s homes, and don’t do non-work-related activities together.
Even if workplace friendships are superficial, though, their biggest benefit is that they make coming to work that much easier, so much so that many employers actively encourage their employees to be on friendly terms with each other in order to cultivate a fun, open, and enjoyable work atmosphere. One Gallup poll in 2007 revealed that having close friendships in the office increased employee satisfaction by almost 50 percent. Having relationships with people we work with—whether it’s a strictly office-only friendship or one that extends to the occasional lunch date or evening cocktail—can help make work feel like a more personally satisfying experience, and can make putting in extra hours or effort more bearable. Friendships foster connections within and between teams, enhancing trust, communication, and understanding, too.
In addition to their measurable effects on productivity and output, work friends are good for us in many immeasurable ways. Work friends can keep each other abreast of office news (or even beneficial gossip), and can assist each other on projects. Being friendly with people in the office can even be a boost to career growth, since it can mean getting better access to information about upcoming openings or opportunities.
Work friends provide support and encouragement and help with professional growth, urging each other to become more skilled and proficient at their jobs. When employees have knowledge of each other’s personalities and personal lives, disagreements are easier to resolve, since the participants are more invested in the relationship. An employee who has good relationships with her coworkers is more likely to reach out and receive help when she’s overworked, as well as to offer help when another employee is in need.
Having a group of pals can make work more entertaining, but becoming too enmeshed with coworkers can have detrimental effects on a person’s career. The biggest risk is productivity: many people spend so much time lunching or discussing personal business that work itself falls by the wayside. Another big risk is that friends who help each other with their workload will develop an unequal dynamic, in which one is asked to cover for the other or to pick up the slack for the other without getting reciprocal assistance.
Two people who are the same age and work in the same field may initially be inclined to be friends, but jealousy often enters the picture sooner or later, and if one friend gets a promotion or transfer the other desired, hurt feelings and resentments can ensue. Work friendships can also become more complicated when one friend ends up in a position of authority over the other friend.
Work friendships can affect more than the actual friends, too. A particularly cliquish set of friends can alienate other coworkers, leading to mistrust. They can even end up being the target of other coworkers’ frustration or gossip, or getting too caught up in office politics.
You Can Pick Your Friends
Career experts advise being friendly with your coworkers … to a point. When choosing and maintaining office friendships, it’s wise to remember a few rules of thumb:
- Choose wisely. It’s better to be associated with employees known for good work than ones known for absenteeism, laziness, or unreliability. Align yourself with coworkers with good work habits and friendly dispositions, because their personality traits will inevitably reflect back on you.
- Set boundaries. In the office, it’s best to avoid heavy topics, such as politics or religion, even with friends. If you are close enough with a coworker that you feel comfortable discussing those topics, save them for after work. It’s also a good idea to avoid discussing personal information, like salary or whether you’re applying for a promotion, especially with people you don’t yet trust 100 percent.
- Don’t let work suffer. It’s normal to help out a friend with proofreading or a big project occasionally, but if you regularly find yourself picking up the slack due to a friend’s poor time management or inability to keep up, don’t let your own work suffer. Simply explain that you won’t be able to take on those extra responsibilities or cover for that person if she’s behind, because it’s cutting into your own schedule. And if you do end up doing extensive work on a friend’s behalf, insist that you’re given proper credit for your contributions.
- Keep up with your other friends. Don’t neglect your extracurricular friends. Spending time with people around whom you don’t have to watch what you say or remain impartial can help you resist the temptation to get too personal with friends in the office.
- Keep it positive. Although friends may share their real opinions on management decisions or how they really feel about the boss’s new haircut, don’t let the friendship turn into a 24/7 complaint-fest. Wallowing in petty gossip or disgruntlement can turn a pair of friends into the kind of clique that alienates the rest of the office, and can affect your own workplace morale.
Nobody wants to be the faceless robot who comes in every day, mechanically does her work, and then departs without so much as a hello or goodbye. We’re social animals; we crave connection. Office friendships can spruce up our work, and if we’re lucky, they spruce up our lives, too.