Is the average workplace getting less friendly? A New York Times article found that while 50 percent of Americans reported having a close friend at work in 1985, it’s been on a downward trend since – passing 30 percent in 2004.
Another trend that’s coincided with a fall in workplace friendships has been falling rates of employee engagement. 70 percent of people are disengaged from their work, according to this year’s Gallup report. This comes despite the same report showing highly engaged workforces delivering 147% higher earnings per share.
Tellingly, Gallup also found that close work friendships improve employee satisfaction by 50%, while people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be highly engaged. Further research shows the we make better decisions and apply ourselves more when we’re friends with our fellow team members.
Friendships at work then, are not just a ‘nice to have’ – they’re an important driver of engagement that contributes significantly to staff retention.
Although today the average company may value friendships less, that’s not the case at the best workplaces. As Christine M. Riordan explains in an article for Harvard Business Review, Google, Zappos, Dropbox, and Southwest, make fostering friendships an important part of their people management strategies as well as their employer branding and recruiting efforts.
Creating an environment that cultivates friendships
We’ve probably all been subject to some half-baked attempts at helping us find friends at work. From dreaded corporate retreats, to gimmicks such as the ‘Hawaiian Shirt Day’ satirised in the movie Office Space.
We often dislike these activities because they feel superficial or tacked on, but they’re indicative of a real challenge we face: how do we go beyond small talk (you could never, despite years of chats at the water cooler) towards really getting to know people and becoming friends?
Research cited in the Times piece I mentioned above has found “people don’t mix much at mixers, and at company parties, they mostly bond with similar colleagues.” However, regular events such as eating lunch together, play and sporting activities are different. Their informal and continuous nature makes it easier for employees to open up and enjoy more in-depth conversations that foster real connections.
As a manager, your manner will also play a defining role in how friendly your team members are towards you and one another. Do you regularly get involved in team activities and discussions? Do you instigate conversations about things other than what’s being worked on right now? Or do you keep your distance? How you act will set the expectations.
To summarise: Clear empirical data from years of research puts huge importance on creating friendships at work, to boost engagement and retain employees. However, there are no shortcuts to creating a friendly environment. Enabling people to spend regular, quality time with each other has to be part of a company’s modus operandi. Team leaders have a unique responsibility to set a friendly tone that will benefit everyone.