Friendship in the Workplace

I read an intriguing article from the Harvard Business Review on Friendship in the Workplace that really resonated with me. It’s a topic I’ve pondered about on occasion in the past and I figured this is a good opportunity to share my thoughts and discuss it.

Basically, the authors start the article with the theory that having close friends at work improves job engagement levels. They quote various studies as proof supporting the claim that work friendships that go beyond the superficial “how are you?” foster higher levels of productivity, retention, job satisfaction and engagement and also give you a sense of belonging. It’s no wonder then that companies often sponsor events to encourage employee socialization. I mean, think about it. On multiple occasions in the past I’ve written about company social activities as well as my attempts at engaging in social activity at work. There was the time when I started drinking coffee to participate in the morning socializing ritual, the times the company organized events like a Christmas concert or a Christmas lunch to encourage employee mixing. Then, there was also the time we started going out for after work beers to socialize.

Having worked at multiple organizations in multiple countries, I can honestly say I’ve experienced and agree with most of what the article talks about.

From my experience working in the US, people don’t generally socialize much with work colleagues outside of work. Don’t get me wrong- I have some great friendships with work colleagues from the US, but this is my general observation. Maybe it’s because culturally, Americans like to maintain a professional distance and separate their work and personal lives, or maybe it’s because of some sense of competition or fear of getting too informal, or it might simply be to avoid conflicts of interest at work.

“…a fear of being vulnerable, of disclosing too much… makes you look weaker or less competent — worse yet, you might get thrown under the bus for it.”

In India though, I found it was quite the opposite. It was very common for us to hang out and socialize during and after work hours and we really enjoyed it. The article mentions that close to half of Indians have vacationed with a coworker. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever voluntarily vacation with coworkers , but when it was obligatory, for example at the company off-site, I genuinely had a great time.

And Spain, is somewhere in between. In most of Spain, it is very common for colleagues to socialize and go out for beers after work. Some friendships grow beyond that, but most stay around that level. A special note here: This varies widely depending on the part of the country you’re in. For example, the after work socialization culture is not as widespread in the area I live, so we need to organize it and push people every so often.

Personally, I am all for socializing at work and agree that social connection is a basic human need. Besides, you can make some really good lifelong friends at the workplace. However, an abundance of caution is a must and the authors make a strong point of this “…a fear of being vulnerable, of disclosing too much… makes you look weaker or less competent — worse yet, you might get thrown under the bus for it.” 

In conclusion, I think it’s important to socialize with work colleagues at work and outside of it (like hanging out for beers after work, or at office events) but anything more is subjective territory and everyone must draw that line for themselves.