Spotlight on: friendships at work

Londoners have the fewest close friends, according to a recent survey, and most of these are made at the office. Why do many people now meet so many of their close friends at work and, from an employer’s perspective, is it something that can be managed?

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University management school, says it is only to be expected. He explains: “If roughly 10% of managers are working more than 60 hours per week, and you add on the commute time in London, how much disposable time do people have to give to sustaining relationships outside work?”

Count on your mates

Jan Walsh, head of Consumer Analysis, undertook the research for travel company Ocean Village to investigate the changing nature of friendship groups.

The results were intriguing. People in their 20s have eight friends, on average, but 40 years ago, a 20-year-old person would have had 14 friends. We make on average two friends through work, while the remainder typically tend to come from school or college/university.

No boundaries

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency, and a successful networker, says this is because there is “so much less of a divide between work and the rest of our lives”.

She says: “I have loads of networks and friends that I have met through work. I think it would be very odd not to do so.”

So, are work friendships good news? Cooper says: “There is nothing wrong with team friendships. It’s when friendships sour that problems may occur.”

Unenviable position

The prospect of having to reprimand your best friend for coming in late is one no-one would relish, but can employers help?

“Some companies do have ‘love contracts’, but they don’t do it for friendships. As an employer, you want your team to forge good interpersonal relationships. You cannot legislate for friendships as much as you can with partnerships.

“I believe the best thing to do is be as honest as possible with your line manager about a friendship. Arguments can have devastating consequences for morale. Handling it is down to management training rather than policies and guidelines,” Cooper adds.

O’Connor agrees, and claims that it’s “all about perceptions”.

“If someone is promoted from within a group of friends to become the manager, then they will have to change the way they operate, and they may become the subject of envy.

“You collect networks of friends through work, and those people are so important. When the going gets tough I will pick up the phone and wail to them, and they will do the same,” O’Connor adds.

How to stay friends at work

  • Try and anticipate problems by monitoring interactions when necessary.
  • Separate friends on contentious projects if the arguing gets intense.
  • Offer guidance to anyone promoted from within a group of friends about how to handle envy.
  • Communication is the key. Talk about the friendship, don’t ignore it.
  • If you have been promoted, have a conversation with your friends over a drink to reassure them that you will keep business out of the friendship.

by Lucy Freeman

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