• Four in five respondents to a US survey say they have at least one friend at work.
  • A majority don’t consider these friends “real friends.”
  • Employees with friends report feeling happy more often.

Are you friendly with the people you work with? Or are you friends with them? The distinction is important: befriending colleagues could make you happier and more productive.

From offices to warehouses, workshops to farms, many people spend more time with coworkers than they do with their families. And what we think of the people we work with and our relationships with them affects our lives, even after the workday is done.

A recent survey of 3,000 American workers employed full time sheds light on attitudes toward friendships in the workplace.

Co-workers outnumber friends.
15% of people consider their coworkers
Image: Olivet Nazarene University

Conducted by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, the survey found almost two-thirds of people at work are perceived as either "strangers" or "coworkers." Around 35% make it into “friends” territory, though only 15% of these friendships continue outside of work.

Four in every five respondents said they work with at least one person they consider a friend.

Friendships are formed more easily in some industries, such as transport, finance and accountancy. Real estate and the legal profession produced lower-than-average numbers of friendships.

 Many friendships start within days or weeks of colleagues meeting.
Many workplace friendships start within days or weeks of colleagues meeting.
Image: Olivet Nazarene University

Most workplace friendships happen quickly, with more than half formed within weeks of colleagues meeting, and 22% established after a few months.

Although the survey shows real estate to be barren ground for like-minded people to get together, it's also one of the sectors where friendships happen fastest, along with retail, the food and beverage industry and insurance. On the other hand, friendships form more slowly in government, healthcare and engineering.

Work friends are important

So, is making friends at work good for us? Gallup’s research since the late 1990s suggests the answer is yes.

The polling company often asks its clients’ employees: “Do you have a best friend at work?” Survey results showed respondents who answered “yes” were 43% more likely to report being recognized for work done in the last week.

A LinkedIn study of relationships at work found 46% of professionals around the world believe having work friends enhances their overall happiness. Building bonds with others can make us feel more connected, which, in turn, can help boost productivity and engagement.

“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 organization,” explains Professor Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, co-author of The Progress Principle. “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.”

The authors analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries from more than 200 professionals working in innovation teams in seven companies. They found employees are twice as likely to be engaged if they have a best friend at work.

A distraction from work?

But before you begin frantically socializing with all your colleagues, a study from Rutgers University suggests developing friendships at work may be a mixed blessing.

The study of 168 employees at an insurance company found having a lot of coworkers who become friends does indeed boost employee performance. Developing friend networks at work helps remove barriers, making employees more comfortable asking for help without fear of being judged. Employees with friends also reported feeling happy more often.

However, these same networks could create distractions as impromptu discussions and breaks for socializing divert people from their work. The study found establishing and attempting to maintain workplace friendships can be emotionally exhausting, especially when situations like a promotion put one friend in charge of another, creating potential power clashes.

Overall, though, the positives of workplace friendships outweigh the negatives.

Friends can act as a support network, which has a positive effect on mental wellbeing while also opening doors to new career opportunities and contacts.

While some bosses might discourage chatting and laughter, it seems even a little friendship goes a long way to improving workplaces.