Why it can be difficult to make work friends in the modern workplace


Most of us don’t have many close friends at work. We consider most of the people we work with coworkers or strangers. On average, people have five friends at work, but we usually don’t count them among our nearest and dearest. Only 15% meet the criteria of a “real friend.” Put differently, most people only have one real friend at work.

Why is it so hard to have friends at work? And if it is so hard, is it even worth it?

Employees often don’t have a whole lot of choice about whom they interact with at the office. Our teammates, office neighbors, and bosses are frequently assigned. The quasi-voluntary nature of our work relationships is one of the reasons making friends at work can be more difficult than making friends “in the wild.”

Another reason the workplace is inhospitable to friendship is its transactional nature. For a salary, you agree to work a certain number of hours or produce a given amount of a good. But in friendship, you help your friends out because they need it, not because you expect something in return. Work life is primarily a pursuit of instrumental goals, often making money. Our friendships are about affect—love, joy, shared sorrow.

Money and social connection are conflicting values, according to a study by Fred Grouzet, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, and his colleagues. The research asked 1,854 university students living in Australia, Egypt, China, the United States, and South Korea, among other places, to rate how important 57 different goals were to them. The goals covered multiple domains, including hedonism, safety, spirituality, popularity, conformity, self-acceptance, and community. Based on the respondents’ answers, the researchers created a map. Goals that people rated similarly—for instance, physical health and safety—were close together. Values that were rated differently—if one was very important, the other tended to be less important, and vice versa—were farther apart in the map.

Dozens of psychology experiments have found that thinking about or touching money makes people less generous, less helpful, and less likely to socialize. People are happiest when they are either socializing or having sex. But simply mentioning money can make people change their priorities, according to Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor at UCLA.

Holmes gave 318 adults the task of creating as many three-word sentences as possible from four words in three minutes. Some of the participants in the study were given words that had to do with money, for instance, the, change, price. Others were given words that had to do with time (e.g., the, change, clock). A third control group was given neutral words. The group asked to think about money reported being more likely to work and less likely to socialize than groups who thought about time or random things such as socks.

The increasingly transactional nature of work may partly explain the decline in work friendships, according to Adam Grant. Historically, it was far more common for our work and personal lives to overlap. In 1985, close to half of Americans had a “close confidant” at the office. By 2004, only 30% reported having a cubicle confidant. If we look across generations, 54% of baby boomers graduating from high school in 1976 placed value on finding a job where they could make friends. Among members of generation X, who graduated when the first Bush was president, it was 48%. Among millennials, it dropped to 41%.

At the same time, the value placed on leisure time has consistently increased—almost doubling from 1976 to 2006. As Grant wrote, “When we see our jobs primarily as a means to leisure, it’s easy to convince ourselves that efficiency should reign supreme at work so we have time for friendships outside work.” Increasingly, we work to get a break from work.

The tension between instrumentality and affect can lead people to avoid work friends altogether or to worry that a friendly hello in the hallway has ulterior motives, or it can make it difficult to manage and sustain office friendships.

But we need work friends. 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 even less likely to get in accidents at work. Social support from coworkers re­duces job stress, helps people cope with work and time pressures, reduces work-family conflict, and helps people guard against burnout.

Most of these benefits, though, come from having a few close friends at work. We don’t need to be friends with everyone. We need one or two confidants. One way of overcoming many of the tensions that can arise between the instrumental nature of work and the emotional connection we need from work friends is to try to keep the lines clear between what’s work and what’s not. This is increasingly hard during the pandemic since these lines are blurred. Our colleagues are often virtually in our private space. But making sure you have conversations that are simply a friendly chat or sending an email to say hello with no agenda can help make sure your work friends stay friends even though you may be working from home.

Marissa King is a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. King is known to use wearable sensors to enhance traditional social science data, and her research examines social networks, social influence, and team dynamics.

From Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection by Marissa King, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Marissa King.

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