In the days when the Work’s Outing was sacrosanct work was a great source of friendship. Today, in the West at least, work has become a more transactional place. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form new friendships. In a recent New York Times article Professor Adam Grant, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, looks at why this is and why “We have plenty of productive conversations but fewer meaningful relationships” at work.
It is said that society since the war has become more individualistic; people deep down think more as individuals than collectively as members of groups and this seems to have affected the workplace. Professor Grant’s insights touch on this and are particularly valuable in the context of organizations’ new understanding of the importance of employee experience in improving employee engagement and performance.
Grant quotes research that found: “In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 percent.” There are many underlying causes of this. For instance the length of time we stay in a job or the growth of remote working and part-time work, but one cause that stands out is that because we see our jobs primarily as a means to support our individual leisure, we convince ourselves that efficiency should be the priority at work to fund our time for friendships outside work.
Both in terms of our personal happiness and employee performance at work this development is regrettable. As Grant suggests “we may be underestimating the impact of workplace friendships on our happiness — and our effectiveness. Jobs are more satisfying when they provide opportunities to form friendships. Research shows that groups of friends outperform groups of acquaintances in both decision making and effort tasks."
When work colleagues are also friends there is more trust and commitment to each other and to the group’s success. They share information more readily and spend more time helping each other. So long as this does not inhibit constructive criticism it can be conducive to a better and more productive working environment. With this in mind it makes sense for organizations to aim to create less transactional more friendship friendly workplaces. This is not a straightforward aim. Research suggests that social events may be ineffective — at company parties, people mostly bond with similar colleagues — but that playing together and eating together are good ways to foster cooperation.
Grant points to companies like Google and Facebook who provide opportunities for shared games, sports, exercise and meals, LinkedIn who encouraged employees to take their personal lives to work by hosting Bring in Your Parents Day, and at organizations from McKinsey to Chevron who have built employee alumni networks in the same way that universities do.
Finally Grant says that: “Whether we bond at work is a personal decision, but it may involve less effort and vulnerability than we realize… A single interaction marked by respect, trust and mutual engagement is enough to generate energy for both parties. However small they appear, those moments of connection can transform a transaction into a relationship.”
Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, fellow of the Martin Prosperity Institute, the author of ‘Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success’.