Real friendship is the secret ingredient to long-term, sustainable career success, better health and general good vibes. Healthy friendships in the workplace can result in employees being more engaged with their work, richer brainstorms, less turnover and a desirable workplace environment — with people who actually like each other.
While dated workplace attitudes discourage friendships in the workplace (though, they still promote the idea of remaining friendly), Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time explains that having real friendships in the workplace is key to personal happiness and the best workplace vibe.
With three published books under her belt, Nelson cites two decades of research by Gallup Organization that the best employees are the ones who answer “yes” to having a best friend at work. Studies consistently show that having best friends at work results in higher productivity, engaged employees and a safe space where colleagues are happy to pick up and cover for each other.
“People are afraid of drama that comes from being close,” says Nelson. “I would say we should be more afraid of the drama that comes from a lonely workforce.”
Nelson isn’t wrong. According to Cigna’s 2020 Report on Loneliness and the Workplace, those who own friendships with their coworkers in the workplace report being less lonely than those without friends while on the job. And this report was released before the pandemic.
Fewer friends, explains the author, means more cliques, more gossip and less intimacy. With 20 per cent of people who report feeling lonely at work almost all the time and 60 per cent of people feeling it half the time — it’s clear friends are super important to have at work.
Loneliness isn’t about needing more interaction — it’s a sign we need to go deeper
Most people don’t identify with the word lonely, explains Nelson, clarifying that most folx mistake it for needing more interaction. It turns out, the quantity of interaction doesn’t need to increase — but rather, it’s the level of intimacy achieved during our interactions that may need to be improved.
“Lonely doesn’t mean interacting more — it means we need to go deeper with a few people,” says Nelson. “We could be on Zoom all day long and still feel exhausted and lonely.”
We know of many people — but it isn’t until we actually get to know them that we feel connected. Social science and Nelson encourage us to understand that friendship is crucial when it comes to our mental health, careers and developing meaningful connections throughout our lives.
“I define friendship as a healthy relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way,” says Nelson. It’s these friendships in the workplace, after taking the time for someone to get to know us, where we can feel safe, accepted, valued and validated.
Commonality is a big myth.
We can be on video chats all day long — seeing our colleagues’ faces, hearing their voices and even enjoying some banter — but if we don’t connect with our coworkers, it can feel like nobody really saw us.
“Big point: loneliness is not about scheduling more interactions — it’s about making interactions more meaningful,” states Nelson.
Here’s how to level up a workplace interaction and turn it into a friendship
In her latest book The Business of Friendship released in August 2020, Nelson breaks down healthy bonds and connections to three key requirements: positivity, consistency and vulnerability.
According to the friendship expert, this is what healthy relationships are built on. She defines positivity as pleasant emotions after interacting (read: you leave a meeting, session or chat feeling good; the relationship must feel enjoyable). Consistency is repetitive shared experiences where you log time — which explains why work has traditionally been a top place for meeting friends as adults — because you get paid to interact with people to get your job done. And, vulnerability is about feeling seen and being authentic.
“We won’t bond with everybody at work, the consistency is the ground the workplace gives us — we bond with those who end up leaving us feeling good (positivity) and those who we end up feeling close to (vulnerability),” says Nelson, who explains that we bond when these three things are present.
Finding your people may be easier than you think
While you may struggle at the beginning of a meeting to sniff out commonality with your coworkers in an attempt to bond — it won’t work. “Commonality is a big myth — to find people we have things in common with,” says Nelson. “Research does not show this.”
And while shared interest won’t land you your new work bestie, it’s still important. After all, it’s through commonalities that we are able to achieve the three crucial bonding requirements. For example, working moms may have the whole working mom thing in common — but it isn’t until they start getting vulnerable and real with each other that any kind of actual bond will develop. It’s about relatability — and vulnerability is going to support feeling seen and leave you with positivity when you walk away from the interaction. Commonality will also support consistency — lifestyles, timing and finding free time to do the friend thing.
“You’re not looking for people who are the same — you’re looking for people to practice the three things,” reminds Nelson.
These people you’re likely to bond with are typically going to be the ones you sit in close proximity with. It’s your deskmates around you who provide that consistency — making it easier to work in positivity and vulnerability to your patterns.
“Look who is around you, without you having to initiate,” explains Nelson. “You have a higher likelihood of bonding with the people with whom you sit next to, who are on your floor or who you’re seeing regularly in meetings — or who you’re on Zoom meetings with. You’re going to have to be super intentional if you want to bond with someone who doesn’t already have that automatic consistency [with you].”
You’re looking for someone who makes you feel better from having been around them.
So, start with people you actually have to work with. Next, pay attention to the people who make you want to lean in. “[Where] there’s something positive there — and it’ll look different for all of us — some of us are drawn to jokes and laughter, some are drawn more to empathy, some will be drawn more to an act of kindness,” says Nelson. “You’re looking for someone who makes you feel better from having been around them.”
Nelson suggests taking a post-it note and writing down three to five names of potential work friends you interact with regularly. This can help identify which you may need to put a pattern of consistency with — followed by your pick on who you can be vulnerable and more your authentic self with; create a space for gratitude and boom! You’re both feeling accepted and validated — and have a new friend in each other.
“Once we know who we want, we know how to deepen that friendship,” says Nelson.
Friendship maintenance matters and here’s how to do it
Especially now, with many people working from home, consistency is important to keep in mind. Nelson, who also coaches and consults leaders across industries to step up workplace engagement and teamwork, notes that positivity ranks lowest of the three things these days when she’s polling.
After all, working from home gives less opportunity to express positivity in traditional ways. There are less gifts and cards, not as much baking for each other, less inside jokes and a more specific effort must be made for acts of kindness when you’re working remotely.
If a friendship feels like it’s fading, new patterns of consistency need to be introduced. “If we don’t have time together, we can’t do the other two things,” explains Nelson. In case you’re wondering, trust is also born from consistency.
For those who relied on the workplace for connections to thrive, an extra effort now needs to be made to intentionally create a new consistency. Without some pattern of consistency, it’s inevitable you’ll feel less and less connected. If you value someone as a friend, reach out to create or maintain consistency. Create space outside of the workplace for each other — this can look like anything from taking a yoga class together to grabbing a quick bite when you’re off the clock.
How vulnerable you are should match the level of consistency you have with someone — slowly add vulnerability as you increase consistency. It’s not about sharing all your personal information ever, it’s about creating a safe space for both people to mutually share. “Being willing to share our ideas and willing to share who we are, what our needs are,” adds Nelson. “It’s less about disclosing personal data — [it’s about] willing to show up and let our emotions be present — full human.”
We gravitate towards relationships that make us feel better. People come and go in the workplace all the time — but when we leave our jobs, we don’t have to lose our friends — though Nelson has heard it happen again and again. It’s partly what motivated her to write her latest book.
Pro-tip: Just keep doing the three things, over and over. Be brave enough to take the time to initiate a new pattern. It’ll safeguard your friendship when you’re no longer being paid to work together.