Workplace Friendships: Enhancing Engagement and Motivation in the Modern Work Environment

May 9, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends

Research shows the critical role of workplace friendships. Yet too often, work becomes isolating, especially with the rise of virtual work. People on remote teams, in particular, may struggle to feel a real connection with peers.

Let’s delve into why forging genuine friendships at work is so crucial to employee engagement, motivation, and satisfaction. Then, we’ll address how to overcome challenges to building these relationships, like establishing appropriate professional boundaries.

Table of Contents

1. The Nature of Workplace Friendships

2. Challenges in Fostering Workplace Friendships

3. Impact on Employee Engagement

4. Boosting Employee Motivation

5. Creating a Positive Work Environment

6. Encouraging Workplace Friendships

The Nature of Workplace Friendships

Workplace friendships involve emotional exchanges rather than just a sharing of information, as Stephen Friedman explains in Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. He outlines four types of work friendships:

  • “Workplace best friend”—a close relationship with a highly trusted confidant.
  • “Workplace close friendly”—strong and supportive relationships with peers.
  •  “Workplace friendly”—more casual friends with whom one might have coffee or lunch on occasion. 
  •  “Coworker acquaintance”—people with whom one exchanges greetings and pleasantries.

Many people have friendly relationships with peers, but building close friendships proves more challenging. Even before the pandemic, 58% of employees characterized most of their work relationships as “superficial,” and 76% of executives said they struggle to connect with colleagues. As more people become genuine friends, you’ll create a more supportive work environment.

Having a few meaningful friendships will be far more beneficial than having numerous superficial ones. Employee engagement will rise as true camaraderie blossoms.

Challenges in Fostering Workplace Friendships

People working remotely may struggle to establish friendships with team members. Without face-to-face time in an office, they may lack opportunities for social interaction. However, organizations can find creative ways to promote the development of friendships on any team. We’ll discuss these solutions in a moment.

Complicating matters, employees may feel leary of workplace friendships due to their inherent complexities. If a person had a falling out with their friend, working together could feel awkward. Or, one colleague could receive a promotion, becoming their close work friend’s boss. A highly empathetic person could also end up giving too much time and energy to a struggling coworker. Or, if an employee confides sensitive information to a friend—such as frustration with the boss—it could lead to a great deal of stress if that person leaks the information.

Rather than avoiding work friendships, people can learn to navigate these situations with grace. “Let’s embrace complexity rather than shutting it down,” writes Lynda Gratton in MIT Sloan Management Review. “It’s sad if we cannot have friends at work because we believe the risks are too high. Let’s not overestimate the mess of trying to build friendships at work and underestimate the benefits of having a close friend at work.”

Maintaining professional boundaries while fostering healthy relationships will lead to a harmonious workplace. Be clear about your own availability, and nurture friendships that support your well-being. Strive to cultivate emotional intelligence so you can handle the inevitable changes in workplace dynamics calmly and professionally, too.

Impact on Employee Engagement

Two coworkers exchanging pleasantries during a meeting
Credit: Anastasia Shuraeva/ Pexels

Workplace friendships enhance employee engagement by instilling a sense of belonging and commitment to the organization. The employee experience will become far more enjoyable and rewarding when people have meaningful friendships at work. This positive work environment greatly enhances productivity and outcomes. In fact, employees with a best friend are seven times more likely to reach full engagement in their work, as Gallup reports. And having a best friend seems to be a critical ingredient for achieving world-class performance, they note.

In contrast, loneliness at work decreases engagement and commitment to the organization, research shows.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 85% of U.S. employees with close work friends say these relationships have positively shaped their careers. And 86% are far more likely to feel satisfied with their jobs. Further, research shows that these friendships increase innovation in the workplace. 

Additionally, 44% of people with a best friend at work would recommend their company to others. Despite all these benefits, just 2 in 10 people say they have a best friend at work, Gallup found.

Boosting Employee Motivation

Workplace collaborations will feel more enjoyable when people are working with friends, bolstering employee motivation. Morale increases due to the positivity that arises.

Plus, work friends inspire and encourage one another. Close friends act as a sounding board for one another, sharing advice and insights. They tend to talk about career goals and what drives them. Hence, having these friendships helps them stay accountable to their dreams. Friends will remind one another of what is important to them and encourage them to pursue it. Close friends help one another remember their strengths and gather the courage to step outside their comfort zones. 

Having friends at work also boosts accountability for following through on tasks, notes Gallup. Plus, people can ask friends questions without fear of embarrassment. 

All of these benefits strongly enhance employee motivation. Due to all these factors, job satisfaction can increase tremendously from workplace friendships.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Three coworkers bonding during an outdoor meeting
Credit: Helena Lopes/ Pexels

As people strengthen their social connections, they foster a strong sense of community. Workplace friendships contribute to a more supportive work environment that reduces stress and improves mental well-being. These relationships improve psychological safety, as Friedman notes. People feel able to voice ideas, knowing their friends will support them, within a positive work environment. With this camaraderie comes greater innovation and enhanced productivity.

Close friendships across racial groups can foster a more inclusive workplace, research has also found. These connections help people see from another perspective and empathize with one another.

Additionally, having close friends improves an employee’s relations with coworkers in general. Their interactions become more positive, trusting, and encouraging—not just with close peers, but with everyone. Work friendships can also boost employees’ physical health. Loneliness has been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, Time reports, and isolation at work contributes to it. In turn, that can lead to serious health issues like cardiovascular conditions. Hence, overcoming loneliness can substantially improve well-being.

Encouraging Workplace Friendships

How to foster healthy relationship-building at work? Here are a few tips:

  • Schedule short amounts of social time at the beginning or end of meetings, as Gallup suggests. 
  • Ask leaders to talk about their workplace friendships. As Gallup says, this helps others to recognize their benefits.
  • Implement a buddy system—and make sure people meet regularly with their buddy, as Jon Clifton writes in Harvard Business Review. “Microsoft found that when its new hires met with their buddy more than eight times in their first 90 days on the job, 97% said that their buddy helped them become productive quickly,” he asserts. “But when new hires met with their buddy only once during the first 90 days, that number was only 56%.”
  • Encourage people to go for a walk with a colleague while talking about a project or issue. If they’re working virtually, they can each put on a headset and go!
  • Urge people to check in with colleagues who might be having a rough day or dealing with overwhelm. Model how to do this. 
  • Use instant feedback tools that allow anyone to share bite-sized input with a coworker. Whether they’re remote or on-site, they can easily share praise, tips, or observations.
  • Plan social events, like workplace lunches. As an icebreaker, you could prompt people to share one interesting thing they did over the weekend. As people learn more about each other’s lives, they’ll have more to talk about—and they’ll discover things they have in common.
  • Meet up in person to celebrate team wins, if possible. If you live in the same geographic area, plan a group lunch or dinner.
  • Urge people to recognize their peers’ contributions. As Jancee Dunn writes in The New York Times, work friendships often emerge from compliments and recognition.
  • Remember people’s birthdays and important details about their lives, like the fact that an employee’s child is starting kindergarten. Others will follow your lead. 
  • Encourage people to initiate collaborations and brainstorming sessions with peers. 
  • Create affinity groups for employees of particular backgrounds, as SHRM suggests. As they build relationships together, they may feel a greater sense of belonging. For example, women can work to overcome the harmful effects of feeling marginalized through such groups. 
  • Use 360 feedback tools to help people learn to work together more harmoniously. This can lay the groundwork for relationship-building.

Taking these steps will help forge a positive work environment, nurture workplace friendships, and strengthen employee motivation.

Workplace friendships play an instrumental role in enhancing employee engagement, motivation, and overall workplace well-being. Encourage people throughout your workplace to build friendships with one another, using the tips shared above. You’ll see teams throughout your organization flourish as people form closer connections with one another and build a supportive work environment.

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