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Having a friend at work matters and it’s about far more than having someone to gossip with.

It matters because as humans we’re hardwired to connect. Spending time with others who we like and consider like us has been shown to be as important to our very survival as air, food and water. Friendships help us to thrive.

Considering we spend over a third of our lives in this place we call work, that’s estimated to be around 80-90,000 hours of our precious time on the planet based on working a 40-hour week. (And how many of us work for far longer?)

Bearing this in mind and the slightly uncomfortable realisation we often spend more time with our work husbands and wives than the one we have at home, having someone to confide in, seek clarification, work collaboratively with, vent our frustrations or have lunch with at work matters.

Taking a deeper look into why we benefit from strong positive workplace relationships and best friends at work includes

  1. It provides a feeling of security. When in a place of uncertainty, being faced with a new challenge or are unsure of what is being expected of us, it puts us in a state of potential threat. The brain responds in 200 milliseconds to answer the question “Is it safe to stay here?” “Is this person a friend or foe?” If the answer is “safe to proceed” it puts us at ease, we relax (for the moment) and it frees up access to our conscious mind so we can get on with the work of solving problems more quickly, making good decisions, being willing to collaborate, innovate and show sound judgment.
  2. It’s rewarding. Our spirits lift when in the presence of those people we like and believe like us back. We look forward to sharing a laugh, a smile and a conversation. As in any relationship, we don’t have to agree on everything, but we have the understanding they are on our side and that provides the feeling that we belong. Feeling rewarded boosts the release of dopamine our feel-good hormone. More dopamine shots are far more energising and sustaining than having to rely on extra coffee to get us through our day.
  3. It boosts performance. Engagement surveys by Gallup confirm a business advantage to having a friend, or better still a best friend at work, and while the assumption is that this is a ‘female thing’ it’s not. Results from a survey of 33,000 tech workers by job site called Comparably 60% of women reported having a BFF at work and 56% of men.
    Taking a look at the Gallup stats women who agree they have a work BFF enjoy double the level of engagement (63%) compared to those who don’t (29%). Social connection makes our work seem more worthwhile and helps us navigate successfully through the bad times as well as the good.
  4. It reduces the risk of mistakes and accidents. If you get on well with your co-worker and you notice they’ve made a mistake, you’re more likely to point it out so it can be corrected. The friend is now grateful to you for not letting their mistake jeopardise the success of the project and you feel good for helping them out. Promoting win-win moments through connection boosts trust, contribution and collaboration. Friends look out for each other – we don’t want to see them get hurt. Psychological safety leads to more shared ideas and knowledge.
    Having good friends and mates at work has been shown to reduce the risk of accidents by 36%. Caring more about each other means if you notice a potential physical hazard, you’ll deal with it to reduce the risk to everyone. Mindful safety becomes everyone’s responsibility.
  5. Positive workplace environments are good for business. Again, Gallup reports it can boost profit levels by up to 12%. Not a bad outcome for leaders seeking a way to retain a competitive advantage, and it makes the workplace a drawcard for others.

How to make a friend at work

This works best through the combination of individual and effort. Leaders who promote a positive workplace community create a working environment for friendships to flourish.

Create a great place to work for all.

It’s no accident that CCA New Zealand has won the best employer award for the last four consecutive years (they just won again for 2019). The leadership and HR team have worked closely to nurture positive relationships across a diverse and remotely separated organisation of employees. People openly say they are proud to work for the company, proud of the work they do and proud to be part of something they see contributing to the greater good. Enduring friendships at work makes everyone feel good, boosts teamwork, and makes us better humans.

Get good at helping out.

The fastest way to build connection is to ask for or provide help when you can see the need.

It engenders trust, the first essential ingredient for any relationship to blossom.

Be OK with admitting when you’re wrong.

Owning up to making a mistake or not knowing the answer can be excruciating because it makes us feel so vulnerable. Coming from a medical background where “knowing” was seen as essential, admitting to not knowing or getting something wrong was often seen as career suicide. Thankfully such attitudes are changing, but the most effective leaders are those who lead with humility and ask the most questions. Having friends at these moments provides a life-raft of support and empathy to help us to find the courage to stay brave.

Call out the good.

We’re so often swift to judge, point the finger and blame others we forget that nurturing friendships includes showing you’re grateful for that, and what nicer way to do that than by publicly acknowledging when a colleague went that extra mile to assist a colleague, a client or a customer. Praise walls are a wonderful way to spread the positive news and encourage reciprocity. Get good at saying thank you, and with a smile.

An Insurance company in Wollongong has a praise tree on a wall. Every time a staff member is noticed to have made a positive contribution, their name and what they did is written on a new leaf that gets added to the tree.

I suspect they will soon have a forest of trees overflowing with leaves in their offices.

Keep the doors to good communication open at all time.

It’s not just managers and leaders who need to be accessible. Aim for a workplace environment that enables water cooler chats and other face-to-face interactions across the day.

Create social activities beyond just your team.

Your next BFF might be working in a different department or team. Without the opportunity for greater transdisciplinary get-togethers, it’s a missed opportunity for new relationships and a greater understanding of how different teams and department work within an organisation. The best way to break down silos is to seek a greater understanding of each other and developing multiple threads of connection within the workplace.

Being a better human is about seeking ways to contribute and collaborate more, to nurture friendships and show kindness to each other.

Do you have a best friend at work?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.


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