Friends at work

“Do you have a best friend at work?” The question did not surprise me when I first heard it. Surprising was the reaction of my colleagues: “Why would I need friends at work? I am here to work hard, not to socialize!”

Fast forward twenty-five years. According to the consultancy that has come up with it in their employee engagement survey, this question is still causing the most controversy.  Even today, the vast majority of managers and employees are wary about close relationships at work. Some clients would refuse to work with them because they thought the question was “not serious.”

But it is serious. Today, our workplace is where we spend most of our life. Why limit yourself to being “colleagues” with someone you spend more time with than with your family?

We, humans, are wired in such a way that we intrinsically prefer being among people who are “like us”: we feel safer, unconsciously, and thus more comfortable. This is better for our health and better for the business because spending our waking hours among friends at work, we are less inclined to waste the day on staring at the clock – and bolt out of the office as soon as possible.

Shared values

On the organizational level, friendships at work are a good indicator of the company’s health. When your people are real friends, they are united by something stronger than the office walls or a paycheck: the shared values. Those values, if shared by many, must be aligned with the company values. Only companies with true strong values have friendship developed between their employees. Real strong values bring the right people together, and the right people have a better chance to become friends.

I find it impossible not to have friends at work. If you do not have a single person at work with whom you would like to spend more time if people around you are foreign, why have you joined the company at all? And if nevertheless, that’s exactly your case, then most probably you are in the wrong place.

Working with teams from different industries and different cultures, I always start with the cultural assessment.  For that purpose, we have developed a tool – the Q7 Culture Compass.

The Q7 tool gives a good indication of whether the team is aligned on their values and thus has a good potential to grow into a high-performance team. If those values are not aligned, you may need more work on the team composition, or the Purpose, or both. And of course, you will not see friendships blossoming around.

Cultural assessment

This one-minute Q7 assessment provides a great starting point for the team discussion:

  • Are we aligned as a team?
  • Are our values aligned with the company Values and Purpose?
  • Do we know what our Values and Purpose are?

Perhaps you do not have access to the right tools or have no experience applying them. Regardless, if you are a start-up or a new manager or if you have not formulated your Values yet, still fostering friendship is beneficial to your company. Do you know that the word “company” derives from “companion” – the Latin word for “one who eats bread with you”? Now you know!

There are many ways to foster closer relationships at work. You must have been through this exercise at least once: Do you have siblings? What school did you go to? And so on. Those are typical “icebreaker” questions. But in everyday office life, you may play this “discovery” exercise with your team. Simple – if not silly – as it sounds, the exercise has huge benefits.

The questions may vary. Once, I was part of an intro meeting at a large company. Our extended team was, perhaps, close to a hundred people. Hardly anybody knew each other. The meeting leader suggested three simple questions:

  • your name
  • your role in the company
  • the person you’d invite to dinner (no limitations with regard to money, time, country, etc.)

Humour as a connector

A guy to my right, whose name was Lee, took a “safe” path: he would love to go out with Bill Clinton. The guy to my left, Roger, who was from Sales, decided to appear awesome and declared that even if there were no limitations, he would still go out with his own wife. He then took a minute to expand on her beauty and virtues.

Roger was so sweet that I could not have let the moment go: I said that – if no limitations indeed – I would probably like to go out with Roger’s wife as well.

When the laughter subsided, Lee raised his hand and asked if he could change his answer: he had realized that Roger’s wife was probably a better choice than Bill Clinton. After Lee’s change of mind, the situation went out of control: half of the team wanted to go out with Roger’s wife.

Guess why only one ­half? Because the other half were ladies, and they were not that keen on going out with Roger’s wife. However, they offered to go out with Roger because he might feel lonesome otherwise for weeks to come…

Trust is the foundation

I went out of that meeting with at least two friends. I can’t guarantee that your team exploration exercise will be as memorable but I am certain that you will learn a lot about each other, and your team’s level of trust will go up one notch. This exercise is a good starting point to help people open up, be vulnerable, and develop trust between themselves. And trust is the foundation of healthy work culture.

You do not need fancy tools to find friends at work. Nor do you need a facilitated team meeting. Simply, look around and try to find one. Let them know that you enjoy working with them. It’s a powerful start to change the way you all work, and now is a good time to try it.

So, do you have a best friend at work?

Sergei Brovkin is Partner and Sr. Consultant at Collectiver Inc. – a boutique consulting company that makes good companies better. Sergei is specializing in business performance improvement through the “soft stuff” – people and processes – and has developed several online tools that accelerate the team culture change. The tagline of Collectiver Inc.: Making Good Companies Better.

For more information about Sergei, please scroll down to view his bio.

I am a business management professional, MBA, MSc(Eng.), PMP, Lean, SixSigma, etc., etc., a trained executive coach and facilitator, with decades working in management across three continents and eight industries, including Fortune-500 multinationals and start-ups, now running my private performance improvement consulting practice Collectiver Inc. I focus on the “soft side” of the business performance: values, processes, culture, and employee engagement.