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How Employers Can Encourage Workplace Friendships

Two business women talking while holding laptops in an office.

​Work isn't just a place where people do their jobs. It's also where they learn more about themselves, uncover their strengths and weaknesses, and connect with the people around them. By spending 40 or more hours at a job each week, employees can form deep relationships with colleagues, which often leads to friendships in and outside of the workplace.

Those friendships are a good thing, according to SHRM's Workplace Romance 2023 survey, which revealed that 85 percent of U.S. employees who have close friends at work said the friendships have made a positive impact on their careers. Furthermore, 86 percent who have close friends at work are significantly more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than those without close workplace friends.

Additional research from Gallup shows that employees who have a best friend at work are significantly more likely to get more done in less time, innovate and share their ideas, engage customers and internal partners, and have more fun. Essentially, workplace friendships can lead to higher engagement, retention and loyalty.

In the post-pandemic era, the world is lonelier than ever, Gallup found. Workplaces can provide the connections that people crave by fostering friendships in which the whole workplace wins.

Here are examples of how some companies are boosting employee friendships and reaping the benefits that follow.  

Volunteer as a Team

Jonathan Portner, managing partner at law firm Portner & Shure in Washington, D.C., oversees 25 employees. As a business owner for the past several decades, he says employees who become friends tend to work more harmoniously together.

"We are more invested in each other as human beings as well as co-workers," he said. "Since we are in the business of caring for other people—our clients—encouraging friendships among employees helps to foster that genuine desire to help and care for others, which is the backbone of our business."

To cultivate friendships among his employees, Portner offers opportunities for them to volunteer together to help their communities. "Even though these events are focused on helping others, it encourages friendship among our employees because we're spending time together outside of the office, outside of our normal working environment," he said. "It gives us time and space to connect on a more personal level."

Servicon Systems Inc. in Culver City, Calif., which supplies maintenance services for facilities, also gives its more than 400 employees the chance to connect through volunteering.  

"We've found that giving back to the community is one of the best ways to develop strong bonds," said chief people officer Richard Conti. "Volunteering at food banks and homeless shelters, and planting trees in disadvantaged communities, fosters a sense of camaraderie and reinforces shared values."

One-on-One Connections

Employees at large companies often have the hardest time making friends with co-workers, research shows. In an attempt to solve this problem, Brown & Brown Insurance, based in Daytona Beach, Fla., started a peer partnership program for its more than 14,500 employees globally. The program introduces teammates and supports them in expanding their networks and building new partnerships. Employees can join the program at any time, and partner pairings are hand-selected based on teammates' preferences and partnership goals.

"Once paired, teammates commit to one 30-minute, virtual 'get-to-know-you' meeting," said Daniella Willey, director of team resources-engagement, learning & development. "To date, more than 1,000 teammates have participated in the program, including members of our senior leadership team. Many teammates report staying connected with their peer partner long after the initial pairing."

If teammates are remote, they are given the option to meet up in person to deepen their connections. "We strive to cultivate an inclusive environment that reinforces a sense of belonging and allows our teammates to succeed in all aspects of their lives," Willey said. "We do that one friendship and one connection at a time."

Getting Healthy Together

PwC, with more than 250,000 employees around the world, created a new program called My+ to help reimagine the people experience and foster friendships among co-workers.

"Teams are committing to intentional walking breaks, starting their weekly meetings by sharing something that made them laugh and even participating in various workout challenges," said well-being leader DeAnne Aussem. "In an effort to get stronger together, we're focused on incorporating these healthy habits into our schedules to set us on the right path for the year ahead." And through My+, she added, employees are creating strong connections with each other and forming friendships.

Include Remote Workers

With many employees still working remotely, employers are challenged with how to encourage friendships among people who don't see each other in person, said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at business consulting company Culture Partners in Temecula, Calif.

The solution? "Be inclusive of everyone, within reason," she said. "I'm not saying bring an iPad with someone else on it to a lunch spot. But involve people as you can."

For example, Kriegel encourages remote employees to Slack their teammates about their favorite movies, passions and interests. "The connection strengthens bonds, and strong bonds make for better cultures and more engagement," she said.

This is especially crucial when things go wrong. "The worst thing in a crisis moment is a disconnected, unaware team," noted Kriegel, who oversees 60 employees, some of whom are remote. "They have no incentive to support each other beyond 'Let's escape this particular crisis.' Teams that have a few low-grade friendships? They solve things."

Create Affinity Groups

Companies are made up of people of all different backgrounds, which is important for inclusivity. At the same time, employees might feel out of place if they don't know anyone who shares common interests. That's why Mary Rusterholz, chief people officer at Constant Contact, a Waltham, Mass.-based marketing software firm with over 1,000 employees, is a big fan of affinity groups.

"Creating subcultures within the workplace is a great way to connect employees with others who share common interests, even if they rarely work together," she said. "One way to do this is through affinity groups, such as for employees who are LGBTQ+, Jewish, parents, etc. Through these groups, companies can create moments where employees can come together and step away from work for a bit."

These groups can help friendships form in person and remotely, since they can be easily set up using remote communication tools. "Members can come together via Slack channels or Zoom," Rusterholz said.

"Work is a huge portion of someone's life," she added. "If you're not happy at work it can greatly affect your overall well-being. Creating an atmosphere where friendships are encouraged is one of the best ways to increase employee satisfaction, which ultimately increases productivity and retention."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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