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Work Friendships Are a Good Thing, Mostly

by Katie Moritz
May 30, 2017 | Work

Do you have a WBF? (That's a work best friend—yeah, I just made it up.) What about a work spouse? (Can't take credit for that one.)

We know that workplace dynamics can make or break a job, and a big part of that is who you interact with. Having people you look forward to seeing can make it more exciting to go every day, especially when actual work stuff gets hard.

In that way, having work friends is awesome. Being happy at work makes you a better employee and makes the daily grind feel more fulfilling—that's pretty intuitive. People with work friends are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs than those without, research has shown.

But new research suggests the affects of having personal relationships at work are a little more complicated than you might think.

Mixing work and pleasure

A research team led by Jessica Methot at Rutgers University studied 168 employees of an insurance company that has a culture of encouraging its people to move around within the organization and work with folks they don't usually work with. The researchers mapped out how these 168 people were all linked in a really cool way—they asked each employee to list 10 coworkers they turn to with work-related challenges and 10 coworkers they turn to with personal stuff.

Work Friendships pbs rewire

From all those lists the researchers created a web of relationships—how each person was linked through work and friendship. The researchers also surveyed the employees on their work environment and asked supervisors to fill out performance reviews of their direct reports.

There's some really good news here: having work relationships that develop into friendships seriously improves performance, based on the reviews the supervisors filled out. The research team's work suggests this is because coworkers are getting judgement-free advice as well as access to information from other teams and a morale boost from their friends.

"Employees appreciate the opportunity to interact informally with their coworkers, and when coworkers become friends, a greater sense of social integration and embeddedness is possible," the researchers wrote in their paper. "This suggests that organizations should focus on practices that promote friendship among coworkers who can interact for work-related purposes."

"A great deal of work occurs outside formal organizational networks," they wrote. Basically, working and sharing ideas with others outside of your official team could help you accomplish more.

Keep an eye on workplace friendships

But there is a downside to cultivating strong workplace friendships: distraction. Chatting with your friends too much or taking long breaks with them can take time away from the things you have to do and make it more stressful to hit deadlines.

Participants in the study with more work friends also reported more emotional exhaustion—balancing friendship maintenance (which can sometimes be stressful in itself) with work responsibilities is not always easy.

This was especially the case when it came to jealousy: As humans, we're more prone to be jealous of the people we're close to. But what if one of our close work friends gets a promotion ahead of us? We want to be happy for our friend, but we also feel competitive with our coworker. What makes it tough is they're the same person.

Work Friendships pbs rewire

The benefits to making friends at work far outweigh the risks, the researchers wrote, but added stress from keeping up personal relationships within the workplace is something to check in with yourself about.

"We all need to become more mindful of how and where we are spending our time," wrote David Burkus, author of "Under New Management," in Harvard Business Review. "Investing time in workplace friendships does pay off, especially when a quick chat can uplift and remotivate us. But too many quick chats—or chatting about the wrong subject, like envy of another colleague—can just as easily turn the benefits negative."


Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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