How workplace friendships can help build a sense of belonging at work
When do colleagues become friends? What are the benefits of workplace friendships and what influence do they have on our sense of belonging and meaning at work? And are there any downsides? In this article, MeaningSphere's community builder Louise Lilja investigates the ins and outs of work friendships and looks at her own experiences throughout the years.
When thinking about work, most of us consider the people, our colleagues, to be instrumental to us enjoying our workday or even just getting through the workday sometimes. Walking into an office in the morning or turning on the laptop for the first zoom call of the day, our colleagues are usually what makes the day that much brighter. Our workplace friendships play a crucial part in us feeling that important sense of belonging at work.
I have often sought out these types of friendships myself. Spending a lot of my time, and energy at work, my colleagues have often become my friends and at times, even felt like family. They've been through the good and the bad with me and I've come to realise their importance.
Work friendships are really a special kind of relationship. Not only are they a source of support, fun, and camaraderie, but they can also help us become more productive and successful in our professional lives. According to the 2021 Workplace Friendship & Happiness Survey by Wildgoose, 57% of people say having a best friend in the workplace makes work that much more enjoyable.
“Relationships matter because they help us feel connected, making us more motivated and productive,” LinkedIn career expert Catherine Fisher, wrote in a blog post, “It’s much easier to share feedback with someone if you have built up a solid rapport or ask someone for advice if you have invested in the relationship.”
From colleagues, to friends, to family
I didn’t think much about work friendships until I first moved abroad, 13 years ago. That is when I really started to understand their importance and how much I relied on them. In a new country, or even just a new city, work can easily become your comfort and your one constant. The need to feel that sense of belonging at work can easily become even greater when the life around you is new and uncertain.
As the workplace is where so many of us spend the majority of our daily lives, it's natural that many colleagues also become our friends. It's not surprising that you often find people with whom you have lots in common at work. I personally think knowing that these people share either the same professional interests as you or are drawn to the same company values, can make you feel like these people are 'safe' – they've been pre-approved, in a way.
During my work life, I have really enjoyed these work friendships. There is an immediate understanding about work pressures and potential mood changes as they too are going through similar situations. The daily interaction also makes it easier to just be who you are, “warts and all”! Trusting your colleagues in a way that means you’re also willing to let them into your life can be very helpful when a work crisis arises. You know who’s there for you.
What about the organizations themselves – do they benefit from these workplace friendships?
The answer is yes. According to Gallup’s well-regarded survey, employees who engaged with their coworkers, such as reporting “a best friend at work” are more likely to be productive, to stay with their organization and to contribute to the organization’s performance. Almost one in five said they are less likely to leave a company where they have friends. These friendships have become an intricate part of how the employees experience their workdays and they bring a certain kind of trust and calmness into the organization.
Other studies have shown that workplace friendships can also help prevent burnout, which is a recognized workplace phenomenon characterized by severe fatigue, feelings of dread and negativity, and reduced effectiveness in the workplace as a result of overworking. Burnout is something many of us have experienced or at least seen someone close to us experience.
Work friendships also play a role in integrating new employees. Few of us will have started a new job without that distinct feeling of worry or even anxiety. To have colleagues help and show an interest, can be the first important step towards helping that person feel that they belong and giving them the confidence they need to fully embrace their new position.
The future of work relationships in a virtual world
What happens then when many of our work relationships become virtual? In this recent study, 46% of the people said that after-work drinks are their favorite team-building activity, an activity proving a lot less popular when moved online. Most people also prefer other types of in-person team-building activities to virtual equivalents, although the latter has improved in popularity with experiences such as virtual escape rooms for example.
As virtual and hybrid working have become more common, companies have had to adapt their approaches to team building as they know they’re instrumental to bringing new colleagues into the organization and retaining the ones already there.
Virtual and hybrid work have helped many employees in terms of the flexibility they offer, and many office workers say they don't want to go back to "how it used to be". But humans are, by nature, social creatures. For many, face-to-face interaction with colleagues is crucial and casual communication (not just work meetings) is a pivotal part of this. Only time will tell how the virtual work world can really compete.
What are the downsides of workplace friendships? Are there any?
Establishing clear boundaries between professional and personal relationships is key. But, as I have found myself at times, this is easier said than done. It can often be difficult to ensure friendships don't interfere with work responsibilities. When your boss becomes your friend; when you socialize with the HR team in the pub after work; when you find one of your colleagues extra charming at the weekend party, lines easily become blurred. If you’re engaging a lot outside of work, in situations especially involving alcohol, you might find yourself in situations you don't want to re-live on Monday morning when back in the office. Balance, and self-knowledge, is key.
Another important thing to remember and respect is that not everyone in the workplace may be open to forming friendships. Though it's been proven that work friendships in general improve employee morale, not everyone has the same needs. Respecting individual boundaries and preferences is crucial to a well-functioning workplace.
Personally, I feel lucky to have met so many great people at work. They've cheered me up when I've needed it, they've stood up for me when I haven't had the strength to do so myself and they've helped create memories that will stay with me forever. I wouldn't trade them for anything.
Each month, MeaningSphere deep dives into a key aspect of meaningful work — in February we're looking at belonging at work. Check out and download our free calendar for daily activities to help you explore belonging in your work.
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