“Your coworkers are not your friends. Get your money and go home.”
We’ve all seen this meme floating around social media; and in many ways, it’s easy to agree with it. At the end of the day, you work to get paid. Contractually speaking, the words of the meme are what you should be doing. While at work, you are executing your end of the agreement between yourself and your employer that you’ll provide your time, effort and skills for payment. Making friends is certainly not a legal or contractual requirement of your employment.
Further, while your coworkers are generally your collaborators, they are also your competition. Consider the implications of this. Will your coworkers really do their best to help you if it means you might progress on the job beyond them? How willing will either of you be to really help each other? What happens when one of you get the promotion that you both applied for? What happens when you become your friend’s supervisor? How valuable do you view the friendship when you are serious about your career and realize that your friend is not viewed favorably by the organization? Are you prepared to suffer career setbacks just by association? What personal information does your work friend know about you that can be used against you while in a vulnerable situation?
Essentially, the nature of office politics and the desire for upward mobility will challenge most relationships in the workplace. This begs the question, what is the upside to having work relationships?
THE ARGUMENT FOR WORK RELATIONSHIPS
Many studies have concluded that persons who have close friends at work report more work satisfaction, engagement and productivity. And why not? If you had the opportunity to see one or more of your favorite people at work all the time, wouldn’t you work hard to ensure that continues – while you get paid?
Humans, after all, are social in nature and desire connections with others. Consider also the fact that love and belonging are number 3 on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs behind basic physiological needs and safety. Simply, people need to eat, they need shelter and then they need to connect to others. So, while people work primarily to obtain a salary to satisfy the first two tiers of needs (food and shelter), having close and positive connections in the work place certainly helps to satisfy basic human need for belonging.
Consider also that persons in most cases spend at least one-third of all their weekdays and many weekends with coworkers. In many cases, people see coworkers more than they see their family and non-work friends. Under these circumstances, making connections is largely inevitable and necessary as a matter satisfying the basic human need for belonging and also as a matter of mental health.
And let’s not forget about the iron sharpening iron principle. If your work friends are high achievers, chances are, you may match them. If for no other reason, the standard of the workplace and the environment will dictate as much.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE WORK FRIENDS – IS THERE A RIGHT ANSWER?
But as Emma Seppälä and Marissa King pointed out in their article “Having Work Friends Can Be Tricky, but It’s Worth It” for the Harvard Business Review, work friends can be a mixed blessing as people with coworkers as friends perform better but also end up being more emotionally exhausted and have difficulty maintaining their friendships. They further make the point that it just may not be possible to have friendships at work without some degree of fallout. This is largely due to the reasons mentioned above.
There’s also the issue of co-rumination which occurs where persons constantly discuss and revisit negative work events and feelings without a resolution. While on one hand, it is definitely beneficial to one’s mental health to have a listening ear at work in which to express frustrations; constantly complaining with coworkers about the workplace without actively seeking solutions creates its own set of issues. For example, constant complaining will certainly lower morale for all involved as well as gradually lower people’s sense of personal accountability (“I don’t need to improve, it’s the organization that has problems”).
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to make a case for strictly one side of the work friend debate. For one who is intensely focused on his/her career, the fallouts associated with having work friends are best avoided. On the other end, work connections make up a large part of the work experience and can have a big impact, whether intended or not. And let’s be frank, in many situations when people leave jobs, they are really leaving people – bad managers and broken work friendships. It seems ultimately that the question is not whether you should have work relationships or not; but rather how should you manage the work relationships you will inevitably have.
Maybe the meme should really say, “Even if your coworkers are your friends, Get your money and go home”