Business magnate Henry Ford may have captured the power of friendship in the workplace when he said: “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me”, but can that special relationship be the key to employee happiness and productivity?
Research seems to point that way with Gallup finding a link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees put in.
Fewer safety incidents, more engaged customers and a boost in profits are among the benefits when employees have a work best friend, according to the performance management consultancy.
Work friendships can lead to greater productivity and engagement
It comes down to trust and bonding, says Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile. “People are more creative and productive when they experience more positive inner work life, including more positive emotions, stronger motivation toward the work itself and more positive perceptions of the organisation,” says Professor Amabile, who co-authored The Progress Principle after analysing 12,000 daily diary reports from 239 professionals working in innovation teams.
“And one of the things that contributes to positive inner work life is a sense of camaraderie with teammates and close co-workers – a sense of bonding and mutual trust.”
But fostering that genuine rapport can be a challenge, especially in companies that may not value close work friendships.
“I’ve had my share of encounters with leaders and managers who frown at chitchat and shared lunch breaks, and view work friendships as detrimental to productivity,” says Annamarie Mann, employee engagement and wellbeing practice manager at Gallup.
However, that camaraderie can pay dividends as employees with a best friend at work are up to seven times as engaged as those without, according to Gallup.
Team projects could be key to forming productive friendships
Off-site retreats and social events can be a catalyst for friendship, but work-focused activities such as a team project launch that allows people to share a personal story, their preferred work styles and what they can bring to the project can be equally beneficial, says Professor Amabile.
It is an approach that has worked for businesses leading the latest Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For report, including the top two firms, Chess ICT and MVF Global.
At telecoms reseller Chess ICT, which has grown to 505 staff and a turnover of £110 million since launching 25 years ago, work friendships are seen as crucial to meeting business objectives.
“Friendships and what we term ‘work family’ are a massive part of what we are trying to achieve,” says Chess head of culture Kate Wood. “People who are happier are more engaged and will give a better service to customers.”
Teams have a daily ‘huddle’, with remote workers joining by Skype, while social activities such as yoga and wellbeing classes, pub clubs and company-funded ideas lunches are a chance to forge work friendships, along with its annual Chesstival event, and social collaboration tools like Yammer, Microsoft Teams and its own Engage app.
“Having close relationships in which people care and trust each other enables them to work better and have that sense of team, which leads to getting things done in a more productive way,” says Ms Wood.
Work friendships are a natural part of a strong company culture
Marketing business MVF Global’s chief people officer Andrea Pattico explains: “Our business is fast paced and dynamic, which involves collaboration and communication. We find fostering a social workplace is critical to being able to achieve our goals.”
The firm was founded by five friends in 2009, and has grown to more than 350 employees and now has revenue of £54.3 million.
“We spend the majority of our time at work, so why not be in the company of people you’d be happy to call a friend?” says Ms Pattico. “Happy teams are productive teams and social interaction is a huge part of this.”
Happy teams are productive teams and social interaction is a huge part of this
However, fostering valuable work friendships isn’t as simple as setting up fun activities. If not part of a wider engagement strategy and strong company culture that values employees, provides development opportunities and challenging work enabling everyone to perform to their best, friendships can become a chance for negative discussion, gripe sessions or even harmful cliques.
“Professional boundaries are still necessary,” says Ms Pattico. “We’ve probably all seen instances where there is a downside, for example someone promoted above their peers who might struggle to gain respect as a leader or employees who feel that their manager favours someone over another.”
Meanwhile, researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey highlight the “mixed blessing” of work friendships that can sometimes lead to emotional exhaustion, despite enhancing job performance.
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development employee relations adviser Rachel Suff adds that issues can arise if personal conflict develops in a friendship and has an adverse impact on wider working relationships.
“Social interaction at work is good for our wellbeing, but managers need to set clear expectations of behaviour in the workplace,” she says.