Building better relationships with colleagues can make you happier and more productive at your job.
February 28, 2020
Cultivating authentic relationships with co-workers provides the support system you need to perform your job well. It’s also a key ingredient for job happiness—in fact, one Gallup poll found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50 percent, and employees with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their jobs.
Another reason why getting along well with your colleagues is important? Most workers logging 30 to 50 hours in the office spend more time with their co-workers than with their family members, according to a Globoforce survey.
But forming strong bonds with co-workers can be challenging. “Sometimes friendships evolve naturally, but a lot of friendships take time and effort to build,” says Nancy Halpern, an executive coach and leadership development consultant in New York City. Younger workers, in particular, appear to have trouble forming bonds with their colleagues: According to a United Kingdom survey, 66 percent of Millennials say they find it difficult to build friendships at work.
Average number of friends at work that an employee has.
Average number of friends at work that an HR employee has.
Percentage of workers who have quit a job because a friend left.
Percentage of people who spend time with office pals outside of work.
Percentage of people who feel they don’t have enough friends at work.
Source: Olivet Nazarene University survey, 2018.
For HR staffers, establishing trust with colleagues outside their department can be an even bigger obstacle. “HR workers often have access to information about other employees that can make people uncomfortable,” says Devora Zack, CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Only Connect Consulting and author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking (Berrett-Koehler, 2010). “It can make non-HR workers feel like they can’t totally let their guard down around HR employees.”
Moreover, HR practitioners have to be mindful of how friendly they get with employees outside their department. “Your relationships with people who aren’t in HR are viewed through a different lens,” says Denver-based career coach Jennifer DeWall. “If you’re seen as friends with people outside of HR, other people might perceive you as playing favorites.”
These complications may explain why HR professionals make work friends slower than employees in 20 other industries, according to a 2018 survey by Olivet Nazarene University of 3,000 full-time U.S. workers.
Still, there are a number of ways that HR practitioners can forge authentic friendships with their peers at work.
Find a Friend Among Your HR Colleagues
The verdict is clear: Having a best friend at work is a game changer. According to the Gallup survey, employees who said they have a best friend at work were 37 percent more likely to feel that someone at work encourages their development, 27 percent more likely to feel that the company’s mission makes their job important, and 21 percent more likely to say they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.
However, it’s important to be strategic when choosing your office bestie. Many experts say an HR practitioner’s work BFF should be a fellow HR employee.
“The role of an HR professional can be somewhat isolating,” says Julie Colbrese, career coach and founder of Chicago-based Hot Coffee Coaching. “That just goes with the territory.” Therefore, having a close co-worker with whom you can share information—that is, information only HR employees are privy to—is invaluable.
Make the First Move
Many employees interact with HR in only limited instances—during open-enrollment season, for example, “or when there’s a performance problem that needs to be addressed,” DeWall says. “Those are the main touch points.”
For this reason, it’s important to be proactive in building new ties—and you can do this by striking up conversations with new people in the kitchen, before a meeting, at the watercooler or in the elevator, says Carol Vernon, executive coach and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Communication Matters.
Stamford, Conn.-based career coach Julie Jansen recommends avoiding mundane conversation starters such as “How was your weekend?” As she says, “benign topics are boring. You don’t want to be generic.”
Most workers logging 30 to 50 hours in the office spend more time with co-workers than with family members.
When breaking the ice, Jansen suggests sharing information about your own life to establish a more meaningful connection. For example: “Is there something in particular that you’re looking forward to this weekend? I plan to make blueberry cobbler with my aunt.”
Colbrese recommends focusing on upbeat topics, for example, “I’m reading a great book. I’m curious if you’ve read it,” or asking for a binge-worthy TV show. “You don’t want to bond over negativity,” she says.
Pro tip: “People give lots of clues about who they are by how they decorate their office or cubicle,” Colbrese says, meaning one way to tailor your first conversation with a co-worker is to ask a question about an object on his or her desk. (“That’s a beautiful photograph. Where was it taken?”)
Optimize Happy Hours with Co-Workers
Schmoozing with colleagues over drinks after work is a great way to meet people—if you take the right approach. A good way to start things off is to make clear that you’re there as a friendly co-worker rather than in an official capacity as an HR employee. Doing this will help put colleagues at ease and make folks more likely to open up to you.
Halpern suggests working the room. “Don’t get trapped in a conversation with one person,” she says. “Circle around. Act like you’re the host of the happy hour.”
Before you exit a conversation, plan for a longer chat in the future. (“It was so nice to meet you. I’d love to hear more about your trip to Peru. Let’s grab lunch next Thursday.”) And, of course, be careful how much alcohol you consume—your co-workers may judge you negatively if you get tipsy.
Create Opportunities to Connect with People
In addition to attending happy hours, consider volunteering with co-workers, joining your company softball team or participating in other office gatherings. Even better, organize social events where you can meet colleagues from around the company in a casual environment—think a book club, or try a meditation group—since shared interests are natural starting points for building friendships.
Starting a new job? Take advantage of your unique position by going around the office to introduce yourself one-on-one. “When I started a job in HR at a financial services company, I personally introduced myself to 200 employees within the first week,” DeWall says. “It allowed me to begin building relationships right off the bat.”
Another way to meet people? “Approach managers and ask, ‘We’re trying to build a more inclusive culture. Would it be OK if I attend your team’s next group meeting?’ ” DeWall suggests. (Get to those group meetings 10 minutes early so you have time to say hello and put faces to names.)
Random acts of kindness—even something as simple as wishing a colleague happy birthday—can go a long way. “You want to build a reputation as someone who’s gracious,” Zack says, adding that “greeting people by name is a solid first step in building rapport and demonstrating a sincere interest.
Also, celebrate people’s career accomplishments. “If you hear that someone ran a great marketing campaign,” Halpern says, “congratulate the person.”
“Having friends outside of HR allows you to get to the deeper pulse of your organization and gain insights into what employees are enjoying and what they’re struggling with,” DeWall says, “but you have to establish clean boundaries around confidentiality.” Indeed, maintaining a certain degree of distance is crucial given your role.
As Jansen puts it, “HR workers need to be as authentic as possible without crossing the line and telling non-HR staffers things that they shouldn’t be told,” she says. “It’s a Catch-22, because you can’t be completely open [with a non-HR staffer] the same way you might be with a work friend who’s in HR.”
Colbrese’s advice: “Be transparent about the things you can and can’t talk about.” For example, discussing a new product launch would be OK, whereas talking about an ongoing investigation by HR into an employee’s misconduct would be completely off the table.
Connecting with co-workers on social media is a gray area, experts say. “Many non-HR workers are going to be concerned about what they post on their personal social media accounts if you follow them,” DeWall says. Your best approach, she says, is to play things safe and connect with co-workers only on LinkedIn—not Facebook or Instagram.
And, no matter how tempting it may be to partake in the gossip mill, you’ll of course want to steer clear of spreading rumors about co-workers or talking about people behind their backs. If you need to vent, air your frustrations to someone outside of the workplace, such as your spouse or partner.
The bottom line? Building better relationships with colleagues can make you happier at your job and a better worker, but you need to take the right steps to become the king or queen of the coffee klatch.
Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
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