Virtual work is testing workplace friendships, particularly our relationships with our more casual work friends. According to a 2010 study by Sam Roberts and Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, after just two months without seeing a friend or family member, feelings of closeness decline by more than 30%. After that time, our relationships with friends rapidly deteriorate. In less than six months, perceptions of closeness between friends plunges by 80%.

Our relationships with work friends are even more fragile and tenuous.

Friendships at Work: A Mixed Blessing

The evidence is incontrovertible: Having work friends has benefits. Employees who report having close friends at work are more efficient, more satisfied with their job and less likely to experience accidents at work. Social support from co-workers reduces job stress, helps people cope with work and time pressures, reduces work/family conflict, and helps people guard against burnout.

At the same time, work friends are a mixed blessing. Work friendships are difficult to maintain, can create a sense of obligation and are emotionally exhausting. These downsides, according to a study of restaurant, insurance and re­tail employees by Rutgers University’s Jessica Methot and col­leagues, can impair productivity as well as employees’ emotional well-being.

What is the best way to navigate these tensions, which are difficult to balance even during the best of times but can feel impossible during a pandemic?

Our Closest Friendships

Most of the benefits of work friendships arise from our closest friends, not our casual relationships with colleagues. In his book “Vital Friends,” Tom Rath explores the rela­tionship between friendship at work and performance. Using a large database of respondents, he found that employee engage­ment increases seven fold when someone has a best friend at work.

During times of crises, we tend to turn our attention to our closest colleagues, often at the expense of weaker workplace friendships. Research by Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein and his collaborators have found that this seems to be true during COVID as well. As they wrote in their Harvard Business Review article, “After the lockdown, employees increased their communication with close collaborators by 40% but at the cost of 10% less communication with other colleagues.”

This strategy is naturally adaptive; if you’re short on time and need social support, focusing your attention on maintaining and strengthening your connections with your closest work colleagues is likely to be the best use of your energy. In a study of more than 500 networks, Nicholas Caplan and I found that people with “close” or “very close” col­leagues were less lonely, felt more connected and were less likely to feel personally burned out.

How Organizations Can Help

Many companies are trying to fight the decay of relationships with casual contacts through coffee roulette, online parties and other creative approximations of “water cooler” interactions. However, it is important to realize that while some employees may need casual interactions, it is critical to give employees autonomy over their relationships. Compulsory social events are more damaging than they are helpful.

This is particularly true for women and people of color. According to research by Tracy Dumas, Katherine Phillips and Nancy Rothbard, people who talk about non-work matters with colleagues, go to holiday parties and participate in similar activities typically have closer relationships with co-workers — but this finding was primarily true for people who were demographically similar to their colleagues. It wasn’t that minorities didn’t show up; in fact, they were more likely to attend. But they were also more likely to tell the researchers that they participated because they felt obligated to or were afraid of the career consequences of not showing up. Anytime people come to an event out of a sense of obligation, their chances of making a new connection are about as good as if they had never walked in the door.

During a time when we have little choice about how much our work and home lives overlap, our work relationships are one of the few areas where we still have autonomy. For companies trying to navigate the complex social landscape of virtual work, it’s critical to realize that there is likely a huge amount of variance in how best to meet social needs. Some people need to be able to chat over the virtual watercooler. For others, encouraging them to take 30 minutes a week to have a non-work conversation with a close colleague is more helpful. The most successful companies provide space for both.

The truth is that we don’t need a lot of friends at work to reap the benefits of workplace friendship. In the short term, the key isn’t making new friends; it is keeping the old.

Share