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Friendship and colleagues: Can work friends become real friends?

Can workplace bonds cut it in the real world?

rickygervais TV's The Office is an exaggerated take on work relationships but some of it certainly rings true. Source: BBC

This article is part of our Change Generation project, supported by KBC. To read more click here.

MAKING FRIENDS AT WORK can be a tricky business.

As we get older, we spend more time with work colleagues and less with even our closest friends outside work. Due to shared experiences and proximity, meaningful workplace relationships are often formed. But, is it a good idea to have close friendships with potential rivals for promotion?

The answer to this is both ‘yes’ and ’no’, so say the experts.

Research from various sources including Gallup, suggests that workplace friendships are positive and provide ‘support and sociability’. Furthermore, a friendly workplace has been linked with a more productive workplace.

Blurred boundaries?

However there are some downsides, such as blurred boundaries between the work role and the friendship role.

Annette Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Management at UCD College of Business. She told TheJournal.ie that some workplaces are ideal for meeting friends and in many businesses it is encouraged.

You already have similar interests, there are lots of opportunities for ‘small talk’, there’s a built-in social factor and let’s face it, it’s inevitable that you will form friendships when you are with people for eight hours a day.

“In addition, many organisations consciously promote workplace friendships by investing resources in organised ‘fun’ at work.”

There are negative outcomes to making friends in the office though. Clancy says blurred boundaries can result in some prioritising friendships in the workplace over the work itself.

“Friendships can cause distractions, anxieties and diminished work performance – particularly if an intimate relationship comes to an end.

What if a friend gets promoted ahead of you?

“Another major factor here is when one person is promoted ahead of his or her friend and this changes the power dynamic between people. Our friends expect us to show favouritism and special treatment and a promotion challenges this unspoken dynamnic.”

Psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick told theJournal.ie the main thing to consider when forming personal relationships at work is that you are an employee first and a friend second.

“You do need to pay your rent, you do need to pay your mortgage and so when it comes to work be professional first. Make sure that whatever is going on with a friendship in the office, that your most important priority when it comes to work is that you’re doing your job.”

Research from Lancaster University in Britain found that even in situations where people have very little in common, coping with a high-stress workplace can lead to colleagues becoming best friends.

Friendships can impact productivity

Lead researcher on that study Dr Anne Cronin told TheJournal.ie that there are positives and negatives to such relationships.

Friendships between colleagues not only offer emotional and practical support for individuals, but contribute to a good working environment which benefits organisations. However, when friends at work fall out, the resulting tense atmosphere can sour the work environment and impact upon productivity.

Dr Cronin says workplace friendships do often translate into ’real world’, supportive friendships, especially in stressful work environments.

“The intensified demands of work in today’s society mean that people spend longer per day in the workplace and face increasing stresses, so the workplace comes to be a larger proportion of an individual’s ‘real life’ and friends at work therefore play an increasingly important role.”

Annette Clancy also thinks these strong work friendships can make it in real-world – with a bit of work.

Standing the test of time

“If all of your social time is taken up with processing what has gone on in work then it is likely that the relationship won’t stand the test of time. The boundary between work and social life needs to be negotiated and protected.”

Having a friend who understands the work environment can be helpful, particularly if you need to sound off about something. Clancy says there are a few questions you need to ask yourself first though.

“Do you see your friend as a co-worker or, as somebody with an independent life of their own, with different interests, different political views and different cohorts of friends of their own? How does this make you feel?

Can you invite friends – and their friends – to social occasions without talking about work?

“This is more work than maintaining friendships just at work, but it can be incredibly rewarding if you can hold the boundary.”

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