Developing a network of “friends” underpins the Facebook business model. Arguably, this has resulted in a cultural deterioration of the meaning of the word “friend,” with people (particularly those of a certain age considerably south of 40) claiming they have a lot of friends, even though they’ve never actually interacted with many of them off-line.
Interestingly, research shows that employees who maintain a diverse range of friends (actual people they meet, talk to and go out with) rank higher on key performance indicators than those who are more solitary.
Related Article: What Makes Employees Happy
Jeb Grabmeir cites Ohio University professor Steffanie Wilk in saying, “Your friends outside of work actually have this connection to how you behave in the workplace, through the shaping of your relationships on the job.”
The more diverse your relationships outside of the job, the more likely you are to develop similarly diverse relationships among coworkers. Why is that significant? Business News Daily reports that a recent study conducted by Wilk and University of Akron professor Erin Makarius found that employees with diverse friendships were graded higher by their superiors in certain work-related performance metrics; moreover, these employees had more trusting and productive relationships with their bosses.
Friends, Just Not at Work
That’s not to say that those with more diverse friends outside of work necessarily have more friends at work, just better working relationships. Indeed, Adam Grant argues in The New York Times that while work was once a major source for friendships, it’s now taking a back seat. He attributes this to a number of factors:
- Employment is no longer a lifetime, let alone long-term, proposition. Job hopping is no longer seen as a negative thing (in fact, it shows you are seeking new challenges), and a first tactic for employers during economic downturns is to reduce staff.
- Greater reliance on contract and temporary workers who come and go to work on short-term projects. Coworkers are viewed as transitory, deserving of civility, but not full-fledged camaraderie.
- Increasing adoption of a virtual workforce based from home that infrequently, if ever, interacts in an office.
- Similarly, growth of flextime in which colleagues work at different schedules, which limits their daily interaction and promotes a “get down to business” attitude.
Another argument posed by Jonathan Fields is that if a friendship deteriorates outside of work, the people involved just stop interacting with one another. Not so on the job, where, Fields says, “friction in a personal relationship could translate to trouble, loss of morale or inefficiency in the workplace.”
Friends At Work: Not Such a Bad Idea
Penelope Trunk, on the other hand, maintains that, “People with one friend at work are much likely to find their work interesting. And people with three friends at work are virtually guaranteed to be very satisfied with their life.”
But what about employers? Should they care about whether their workers are friends? Shouldn’t they only be concerned about whether they do their jobs?
Consider the experience of a plant manager who strove to encourage employee relationships beyond just working together, as reported in Vital Signs by Tom Rath:
At first…the men thought she was a bit crazy—the way she talked about how they should care for each other and develop friendships…She established a social fund that gave employees money for outings with their coworkers and family members…After a few months, she could see things changing at the plant. The men were having more casual conversations, and a few even looked like they were enjoying their jobs…The team’s performance, as measured by ‘line speed,’ or the average number of units produced in a day was increasing rapidly as well. The plant’s customer complaints were down 50 percent from the previous year.
As TechRepublic notes, building employee morale is key to positive employee interaction that contributes directly to a company’s bottom line. It’s what used to be called “team-building.” Ways to build teams and productive friendships among workers that are equally productive for employers, include:
- Hold regular company socials, both during and after work hours.
- Promote friendly contests, such as football pools and ping-pong tournaments.
- Encourage community service projects.
- Recognize people for their work, even if it’s just a “shout-out” that someone did a particularly good job (though distribution of a gift card might also be nice).
- Ask employees what is going on in their jobs, accept feedback and make changes if needed. Employers don’t need to be friends to their workers, but creating a friendly and open atmosphere is certainly a good idea.