Forging ties with colleagues, even for a short time, boosts your reputation

Flux is a defining feature of the contemporary working environment. Whereas earlier generations could count on a job for life, the fickle nature of 21st century employment means job-hopping is the new norm.

One side-effect of our fluid working culture is the erosion of workplace friendships. Although working with the same colleagues year-in, year-out may have presented some challenges, deep relationships were also formed and maintained for decades.

Expectations around workplace friendships have altered significantly as the employment market has become less stable.

In 1985, a study in the United States identified that half of those questioned had a good friend at work. A survey nine years later put the figure at 30 per cent.

It’s safe to assume that the volatile work environment of the past 11 years (which includes the 2007-2008 GFC) might have led to an even lower friendship rate.

So what are the implications of this? Are workplace friendships still important? Or does our increasingly competitive working space mean we are better off to go it alone?

Helena Cooper-Thomas is a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at the University of Auckland. She says there is some paradoxical research around the part restriction of social time (the time in which friendships are forged) in the workplace can play on productivity.

“Take the introduction of the laws surrounding tea breaks as an example,” she says. “While this ostensibly could be seen as a way to generate greater productivity, the opposite is actually true.”

She says colleagues who have a friendly working relationship often spend their breaks discussing issues they are having at work. This can lead naturally to problem solving; resolution of issues that may have escalated without the help of others.

By removing the social aspect of workplace life, productivity can decrease rather than increase, and issues that could have been resolved via friendly collaboration can arise.

Cooper-Thomas says there can also be negative outcomes to workplace friendships.

“You don’t want to be spending hours every day listening to a friend’s personal problems,” she says. “This type of behaviour can be draining and can distract you from the work that you should be doing.”

In particularly competitive environments that are subject to intense restructuring, an individualistic approach may be viewed as sensible. Volatile workplaces increase the need for worker autonomy, so it could be argued that it’s better not to get too close to your co-workers.

But there is a flipside to this. Cooper-Thomas says that being friendly, helpful and capable can garner you a good reputation in the workplace, and make you less vulnerable when it comes to wholesale restructuring.

“That reputation can make all the difference,” says Cooper-Thomas. “Being helpful, co-operative, and having a wide friendship base can stand you in good stead in these situations.”

Strong workplace friendships can also foster innovative thinking. Cooper-Thomas says that “task conflict” (or differences of opinion around new ideas, work practices or products) can lead to positive outcomes, as long as the conflict doesn’t spill over into relationships.

“Diversity of views is very important in the workplace,” she says. “When you are coming from a place of trust and friendship, you are able to communicate different opinions without undermining your positive attitude to your colleagues.”

Another component of workplace friendship is how seemingly idle chatter can lead to better outcomes in meeting situations. “A researcher has determined that if there is a period of brief interaction at the beginning of meetings where people can talk about seemingly trivial matters, the meetings end up being more productive than if they are more formal.”

Workplace friendships may be waning, but Cooper-Thomas feels there is still value in forging ties with co-workers, even if for a short time. She says the same rules apply to workplace friendships as to friendships in general.

“It’s important to develop friendships with people who are positive and constructive,” she says. “Friendships with difficult people can lead to problems when it comes to your reputation in the workplace. But good relationships can create a collaborative environment in which important information and ideas can be disseminated, and this is good for employers as well as employees.”

Although we are spending less time in each job, technology has enabled us to be more widely connected than ever before. We may no longer rely on workplaces as a forum for friendship creation, and networks such as LinkedIn provide a new means by which to forge positive relationships in our professional lives.

“I would say that probably two-thirds of our professional friendships occur outside our physical work environment,” says Cooper-Thomas. “And these friendships occur across a much wider network.”

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