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In praise of work friends

by Jess Annison

Work friends: a key driver of happiness at work, and more necessary than ever

Late last year I conducted some informal research within my network relating to purpose at work: exploring what makes our work meaningful, and what challenges arise at work for purpose-led people. One finding that took me by surprise was just how important work friends are. I knew they’ve always been important to me, but every person that I interviewed mentioned (without prompting) how work friends make the frustrations and challenges of organisational life much easier to manage, and how it can really affect personal resilience when those relationships aren’t there for some reason. Through this blog I’m going to set out some of the challenges of building and maintaining work friendships (particularly during Covid-19, which for many of us means working from home), and what we can do about it.

Why do we need work friends? We spend a significant amount of our time in work, and even when we love what we do there are moments of challenge, stress or frustration. It seems self-evident that it’s good to have someone at work that we like, we enjoy spending time with, we trust, and who’s looking out for us. Someone who’s ready to support, advise, and kick around ideas. Someone who’ll listen to our grumbles and rants – but also knows when (and how) to tell us to get over ourselves and move on. Someone who understands the organisational culture, the people, and the way things are. Someone we can put the world to rights with over lunch, or a few drinks at the end of a long week. Someone with whom we can be vulnerable and let down our guard.

In fact, it’s even more than just ‘a good thing’. Gallup’s employee engagement research asks “Do you have a best friend at work?”. Over the years, its research has “repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job”; it leads to increased profit, improved customer engagement, and even fewer accidents in the workplace. Essentially, when we feel closely connected to one or more of our colleagues, we take positive actions that benefit the organisation and its customers. When we have work friends, we feel able and motivated to go above and beyond.

When I think about my own career to date, I also think about the work friends who were such a big part of each experience. They are a key part of the achievements and the successes, and also a key part of helping to manage the challenges. Dear work friends, I hope you know (a) who you are and (b) what I’d give for a coffee / lunch / wine in Croydon / Westminster / Canary Wharf / Soho / MK with you right now!

So, work friendships are important – but they’re also pretty rare. And the people I was speaking to for my research noticed that those close work friendships feel like they’re getting more rare, more precious. Some of my interviewees had become more senior in their organisations, making them feel more isolated. Others had moved organisations and were having to build new work friendships. Others had recently become parents and were less able to meet work friends socially (even before Covid restrictions).

All of my interviewees commented that working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that work friendships have changed. Despite calls and instant messages, we are missing the ability to connect regularly and spontaneously. There’s no nipping out to get lunch together, no chats in the queue for coffee, no raised eyebrows or covert smiles in a meeting, no “WTF?!” conversations to let off steam.

It feels like we’re less connected, and more isolated; as a result, we’re experiencing less positive impact from our work friendships. And yet arguably we need that positive impact now more than ever. We know that the pandemic and the resultant economic and other uncertainty is causing mental ill-health for a growing number of people. If our work friendships are also less strong, we risk missing out on a key source of work-related mutual support, resilience, and confidence boosts.

If you’re feeling that your work friendships could do with a lift, consider these options:

1) Talk about it. I know, I know: “will you be my work friend?” sounds much more primary school playground than professional workplace. But I’d argue that we should be comfortable talking about the support we need from others at work – and want to give in return. Take the opportunity to ask a trusted colleague how they’re doing (and really listen) and share how you’re feeling too. Chances are, they’ll appreciate it as well.

2) Increase your connection with work friends. It might seem a bit mechanistic, but schedule in time to connect with your current work friends. It could be a video call, an audio call away from your desks so you can stretch your legs at the same time, or just a quick instant message / whatsapp to let them know you’re thinking of them (emojis and gifs optional).

3) When possible, consider meeting in person. At the time of writing, it looks promising that Covid restrictions here in the UK will start to ease soon. And whilst many employers might require or encourage working from home well into 2021, it should become more possible to meet for a socially distanced walk (and maybe even a glass of wine in a pub garden). Of course, follow the rules in your local area; work friends are ace but they’re not worth catching (or spreading) disease.

If the actions above aren’t possible and you’re feeling isolated and lonely at work, consider ways to get the help and encouragement you need from your non-work circles, including friends and family. You could also look to reconnect with previous work friends. Whilst they may not know the specifics of your current organisation and work circumstances, they know how you are in a work environment and should be able to listen and share their experiences. They might remind you of how you’ve handled similar things in the past, they might remind you of your strengths and achievements. Or failing that you might just have a reminisce about the good old times and feel better for that too.

Finally, there are also options to seek camaraderie and support from others in a similar position through sector or role-based action learning sets and group masterminds. These tend to be small groups of people with something in common, carefully brought together in ways that build trust and enable people to support each other over time. They might be organised by professional associations or membership bodies, or by coaches and consultants with a relevant network.

If you’ve found this useful, do share this with your work friends and let them know how much you appreciate them, or feel free to tag them in the comments! And if you’re looking for support through coaching – just get in touch and I’d be happy to discuss further.

N.B. This blog was also published on my website.

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