Friendship is one of the essential building blocks for a high quality of life, so it’s not surprising that its influence extends into the workplace. Whether you find yourself working in an office setting or remotely, the power of forging workplace friendships can impact your job satisfaction and overall well-being. After all, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as bonding—or commiserating—with someone who understands the unique intricacies of your workplace nuances and dynamics.
However, friendship at work doesn’t quite abide by the same rules and implications as external friendships. While forming workplace bonds presents its own set of unique challenges, the rewards make it a worthwhile journey.
The benefits of work friends
The average person spends a staggering amount of time at work—roughly 90,000 hours, which equals nearly a decade. Nathan Iverson obtained his doctorate in industrial organizational (I-O) psychology. Considering the hours spent in the office, he researched the role of genuine friendships in enhancing workplace happiness.
“We found connecting with others to be the most powerful action someone can take across every global region to raise their own job satisfaction,” Iverson says.
Not only does making friends increase job satisfaction, but it also increases workplace productivity.
“Gallup’s research indicates that those with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be fully engaged in their roles,” Iverson continues.
Of course, simply clocking in and out of work is always an option, but making workplace friends makes life more enjoyable. So how do we make friends at work? Making friends at work is a multifaceted endeavor that parallels building friendships outside of the workplace. While it may start with a casual chit-chat during coffee breaks, it’s about cultivating authentic connections with your coworkers.
How to make friends at work
Utilize workplace community
The environment in which we work can play a pivotal role in the growth of workplace friendships. When companies prioritize community engagement and cultivate a culture of positivity, they create an ideal backdrop for employees to connect on a more personal level. Social gatherings, such as company-sponsored happy hours and community events, offer a unique opportunity to begin laying the groundwork for friendship with colleagues outside the confines of professional tasks. These more casual environments foster deeper connections and camaraderie. Mentorship programs, too, can reveal connections that might otherwise have been overlooked.
Create your own community
In a workplace where community building might not be a central focus, there’s still a world of opportunity for you to take the initiative and craft your own sense of community. You can become the catalyst for forging connections with your colleagues. A simple “hello” or introducing yourself to a coworker can be the starting point for a meaningful relationship. Engage in genuine conversations by asking about their day, showing interest in their experiences or sharing a bit about yourself. The break room can serve as an informal gathering spot for conversations, and it’s here that you can strike up friendly discussions to get to know others better.
Small acts of kindness can go a long way in building connections and making work friends—bringing in homemade cookies to share with your team, for example, can open up a new level of comfort or trust within the office.
It also doesn’t hurt to be generous with your encouragement. You can foster a positive and uplifting environment by being supportive and offering words of encouragement when your colleagues face challenges or celebrate successes. If you notice something, compliment your coworkers. These simple efforts don’t take a lot of energy, but they can help set the tone for a workplace where camaraderie thrives.
Understand different personalities
As with friendships outside of the office, we don’t always click with certain personality types. However, it’s not easy to simply dismiss people who we don’t get along with at work. Unlike real-life relationships, you can’t just ignore coworkers who you don’t like, especially if you have to work directly with them.
“It’s crucial to discern early on when personalities might clash to prevent potential conflicts,” says Iverson of work relationships.
Because of the nature of work relationships, it’s helpful to look at it from the perspective of friendships that are easy to foster and those that require a bit more effort. When you click with someone, that makes a friendship easier to foster.
If you don’t click with another coworker, try looking for their strengths intentionally. We find what we’re looking for because we’re wired toward confirmation bias. Understanding a colleague’s approach and strengths can make you more appreciative of coworkers who may not immediately click with you. You’d be surprised how working together toward a common goal with a focus on how much our teammates bring to the table can foster a sense of camaraderie. Once you have that momentum, maximize the goodwill.
The risks of workplace relationships
There are plenty of benefits of work friends, but they also come with certain risks. Friends that we work with directly have the pros of being able to understand and empathize with frustrations of the work or a project or a boss’s unreasonable expectations. Although it can be fun to commiserate with our coworkers about certain company behaviors or policies, these relationships also require a lot more discretion, tact and boundaries. Be wary of how you engage in spirals of negativity. Only having pessimistic conversations can drain your energy rather than fuel you.
And then there’s the matter of trust. Deep relationships and genuine friendship require a level of trust and disclosure. The more time you spend outside of work, the more confidentiality is important. Before sharing a significant private or confidential matter with a colleague, try with something smaller first to test the water. Not everyone can be trusted with everything, so take your time developing relationships.
Although these are potential risks, you can avoid them by intentionally communicating boundaries and being smart about what you share and when.
Making friends at work requires boundaries and communication
There is a level of subtlety when it comes to how to make work friends. Iverson explains that boundaries are essential for workplace relationships, but balancing personal and professional interactions can be delicate. Many organizations, like Iverson’s, have shifted from the traditional “work-life balance” to the more contemporary “work-life integration” concept, acknowledging that complete disconnection is more difficult than it used to be.
“In a connected world, it can be challenging to disconnect,” Iverson says. “Rather, we may want to consider which part of our work lives we want to integrate and share with our personal lives.”
The key to this is authenticity—being true to ourselves while keeping things appropriate in the workplace. It all boils down to mutual respect and understanding as the foundation for building authentic connections without sacrificing our professional objectives.
When it comes to communication with work friendships, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s like trial and error, influenced by personal preferences. The simplest way to figure out how your coworker prefers to communicate is by just asking them directly. But if that direct approach feels a bit awkward, don’t fret. You can take cues from them and adjust your communication style accordingly.
Taking workplace friendships to the next level
If you want to take your relationship beyond the workplace, a casual invite for dinner or drinks after work often does the trick. Every relationship has its firsts, like sharing personal stories or hanging out outside the office. But remember, only some people are comfortable blending their work and personal lives, so respect for boundaries is key.
On the other hand, if you’d rather keep things strictly professional during office hours but feel comfortable with a more casual tone after work, just communicate that clearly. It’s all about setting the right expectations.
“Workplace colleagues do not need to function as our family,” Iverson notes, “but the research suggests work will be miserable for us if we don’t turn our colleagues into friends.”
Work friendships can enrich our work environment, making tasks more fun and projects feel more manageable. But more importantly, work friendships can enrich our lives. Even when a season at a job ends, many work friendships in which we have invested continue on for a lifetime.
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