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An ode to work friendship

October 9, 2023
Close up of rings of Saturn with red orange overlay
Rachel Slattery creates and nourishes communities of curious minds around frontier tech and better ways of working.
I still remember the moment when I realised I had made friends in my first ‘real’ job. A group of three groovy girls a few years older than me asked me if I wanted a cup of plunger coffee. Plunger coffee was a big deal at the time and life-changing for those of us brought up on Nescafe or International Roast. Anyway, I became part of the plunger club and instantly felt a feeling of belonging – to my friends and to my work.

Work creates valuable opportunities to find friends through circumstance, frequency and proximity. Work provides us with a framework to practise the art of small talk and sometimes the conversation can be very one-dimensional (think footy) or limited (think lift or coffee queue). Work enables friendships to happen little by little over time or to stay in cruise control for years with just lovely rapport and mutual goodwill. And while we have all had experiences of work relationships gone askew, it does seem that for the most part, true friendship in the workplace is something to cultivate and treasure.

I have made friends with my colleagues, clients and collaborators at and through my work and some of them are now truly woven into my personal life. And research (Craig, 2019) shows that this makes sense as we are more likely to make friends at work when we spend a lot of time in a workplace where the culture is conducive to cultivating friendships.

What’s good for us is good for the company

Friendships at work benefit us and our organisations. We communicate better, encourage each other and are more likely to enjoy the time we spend at work. Building relationships embedded in trust can help us acquire professional social capital over time allowing us to access much wider areas of knowledge and expertise.

Research backs this up: work friendships are good for organisations as people are less likely to leave, more likely to recommend their workplace and more likely to feel satisfied with their work. Recent Gallup data also indicates that a best friend at work is strongly linked to business outcomes, including profitability, safety, inventory control and retention.

Not only are our lives built on the ritual of work – but the cadence of many of our friendships is built on the ritual of work!

A lifelong support network

As I get older, my friendships found through work only become more precious to me. Apparently I am not alone as research indicates older workers place a higher value on their social relationships and place a higher value on the respect and friendliness of coworkers.

The wonderful Gratton & Scott in their book The 100 Year Life talk about the need for us to retain a “regenerative community” comprising the friendships we have gathered over decades. As our lives diverge and changes happen to and by us over time it may be necessary for us to invest more effort into keeping these old friendships. But keeping in touch with this community is vital to our wellbeing and helps us adjust to transitions such as retirement.

Not only are our lives built on the ritual of work – but the cadence of many of our friendships is built on the ritual of work! To flourish during our silver decades Gratton & Scott further advise that we need to build diverse networks that are neither found in our immediate work settings nor our community of older friends. It is through these diverse networks we are likely to find the collaborators and potential friends of our future selves.

But how best to build the social scaffolding we need to prepare for a life when work is not so central? At any age, friendships blossom through shared experiences, making sport, hobbies, side-hustles and passions fertile soil to find and grow them. And as work blurs into our personal lives, activities such as study, training and meetups can refresh our networks and our lives. Existing and potential friendships need our time and our attention at all stages of life.

How can workplaces support friendships?

As individuals and as leaders of organisations we can help ourselves and those at all stages of life cultivate friendships by ensuring we work in environments where opportunities to make friends, both at and outside work, is both possible and encouraged. This could be just as simple as work environments where people feel comfortable being themselves and safe to share. I also agree with Agile leader, Linda Rising on food unlocking the magic of any team gathering! Changing our language so that friends are given the same status to family and partners is also an important signal of acknowledging the close relationships we need at all stages of life.

It is also important that leaders model the behaviour for others to follow by cultivating friendships themselves and championing friendship in the workplace as desirable. Cultivating friendships through my work continues to widen my world! In my experience some of the best work friendships form across differences in geography, age or interests! I tasted my first chicken feet (aargh!), went to a 21st birthday in my 40s and a 50th in my 20s, looked after a house in charming McMahons Point and ended up living there for years, and became a Studio Ghibli fan. All of those life highlights (even the chicken feet) were due to the influence of some of my dearest work friends.

I dare not describe much of the magic of my closest current work relationships – they are too precious for that. But some of those I work with every day predate my marriage and motherhood and through the darkest days of our Zoom years were a joy and a comfort to me – as I hope I was to them. It is friendships like these that will most likely keep me working as I age! Intrinsic motivators such as learning, purpose, impact and friendship are intertwined and big inducements to keep us working long past the so-called ‘retirement’ age.

Friendships scaffold our learning and give us increased purpose to be at work while also giving us confidence and support that spills into our personal lives.

And let’s not forget lots and lots of laughter – having fun at work is a great way to feed minds, bodies and friendships. I am lucky to have found humour, generosity and humility in my work friends. Yes, as I embrace my silver years, I am most definitely delivering an ode to the friendships forged at work.

References and Further Reading below

Almeida, T, Hamilton, O.S, & Virhia, J. (2023) Workplace friendships: the double-edged sword. The London School of Economics and Political Science Blog

Craig, L., Kuykendall, L. (2019) Examining the role of friendship for employee well-being, Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Patel, A., Plowman, S. (2022) The Increasing Importance of a Best Friend at Work

Gratton, L. and Scott, A.J (2017) The 100-Year Life. Bloomsbury

Marvell, R.A., Cox, A. (2017) Fulfilling Work: What Do Older Workers Value about Work and Why? Centre for Ageing Better, Institute for Employment Studies.