Friends at Work Make For Happier Employees – and a Better Bottom Line

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Oct 2, 2014

 With my mother dying earlier this year, I have been reminded of the importance of friendship.

My pals have played a crucial role in supporting me, helping me grieve, cheering me up.

Several of these life-affirming friends are from work, including a group of buddies that dates to our work together as newspaper reporters 15 years ago.

Indeed, at a time when Americans have fewer friends than they used to, the workplace is a fertile field for growing these valuable ties. And companies can do a lot to water that social soil — resulting in happier employees and a healthier bottom line.

Fewer friendships in 21st century America

Author David Brooks raised my awareness of the power of pals in a recent New York Times column. He noted that close peer relationships help people behave better, make wiser decisions and generally live life more fully.

The children’s song says old friends are “gold.” Unfortunately, though, Americans have less of this precious relationship resource.

Brooks cites research that the number of really close friends the average American has dropped from about three in 1985 to two in 2004. And the number of people who say they have no close confidants at all tripled over that time.

Perhaps the emergence of social media has improved the figures some in the past decade. But I suspect Brooks is right when he points that people today seem to have trouble forging friendship bonds across class lines, and that middle-age Americans “are so busy with work and kids that friendship gets squeezed out.”

As a middle-age guy with a wife and two kids, I can attest to that frenetic pace and the difficulty devoting time to my buddies.

Changes in the workplace play a role

I also suspect that workplace changes figure into the erosion of American friendships. Back in the post-World War II period and up to the 1980s, work was a source of much friendship. Co-workers were in bowling or softball leagues. Their long job tenures facilitated enduring friendships (if they also drove people nuts with long-lasting, annoying colleagues).

But the fraying of the post-war social compact around work made the office less likely to foster a life-long friend. Frequent layoffs and restructurings, just-in-time scheduling, and the expectation in recent years that people work longer hours and remain always on, have diminished the odds of positive work-based friendships.

The best workplaces, though, are bucking the trend. They recognize the importance of camaraderie in making for a great employee experience.

In the Great Place to Work model, camaraderie is one of the three pillars of a great workplaces, along with trust and pride. And workplace social bonds are growing stronger at the best.

Among the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work, employee survey scores for the statements “this is a friendly place to work” and “there is a ‘family’ or ‘team’ feeling here” have both risen from 1998 to 2014. And the positive score for “people care about each other here” has jumped 9 percentage points during that time, to 90 percent.

How management helps workplace friendships

These improvements are in large part the product of intentional management moves to foster friendships and a family feel. Consider St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Employees participate in golf tournaments, arts and crafts fairs and dress-up days. And not long ago, the hospital took the look and feel of employee break rooms — where a fair amount of coworker socializing happens — seriously. Employees helped design upgrades to these rooms.

Great small workplaces also work at promoting workplace connections. Here’s what an employee at funeral insurance company FDLIC told us: “This company doesn’t feel like just a job. Everyone here makes it feel like a family. If there is something going on in your life, you always know that you will have the support of your FDLIC family.

The payoff of a workplace with strong friendships is increasingly clear.

Research firm Gallup includes having “a best friend at work” as part of its definition of employee engagement, and has linked engagement to improved business results. Great Place to Work also has a raft of evidence that the best workplaces — again, defined in part by strong camaraderie — outpace the competition.

Helping your good workers be good friends, too

And of course there’s the individual impact of work-based friendships, such as the soulful support I recently got from my pals from the Tri-Valley Herald newspaper in Northern California. Our boss in the late 1990s, Ernie Hines, had us over to his house, and made sure to celebrate birthdays and good newspaper work with office parties. Thanks for helping to cement those bonds, Ernie.

My mom used to tell me how important it was to put good people in my life. Here’s a corollary for companies: Help the good people in your firm become friends, for your sake and theirs.