We spend much of our lives at work. That time can be made exponentially more enjoyable if you have a friend around, but it can be tricky to form workplace friendships at a new job.
Hilla Dotan, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Coller School of Management at Tel Aviv University, began researching workplace friendships after noticing the stark difference between working in the Netherlands and working in Israel, where she was born. After living and working in Israel, where she says workplace friendships are common in organisations, working in the Netherlands felt very formal, and friendships were almost discouraged in the organisation in which she worked.
“It demotivated me to the point that I actually left the organisation, and I got curious about how it affected other people across cultures,” she said.
While Dotan emphasises that workplace friendships need to be formed thoughtfully, she acknowledges they can be immensely beneficial to both individuals and companies as a whole.
“Friendships can be wonderful, and they can make the organisation flourish,” Dotan said. “Having even one close friend at work can lead to wonderful individual and organisational benefits, so organisations should definitely try to encourage them but manage and train people with regard to the potential negative effects of these relationships.”
If you’re struggling to form workplace friendships at a new job, here are five tips from experts on how it may be done:
Ask to join. When you’re the new person in the office, you’re walking into an environment where everyone else likely has a set routine. It may not occur to your new colleagues to go out of their way to make you feel included, so you might have to ask.
“I would recommend new employees pay attention to whether there are small groups going to the cafeteria together or going out to lunch together and ask these groups if they can join them for lunch, particularly during that first week in their new role,” said Lisa Petrilli, author of The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership. “I’ve never heard of anyone saying no when asked, yet many people are afraid to ask.”
Get out of your comfort zone once per day. Overcoming that initial hesitation and fear of awkwardness can be daunting for anyone, but especially for introverts, who prefer spending time in small groups rather than larger ones.
Petrilli recommends introverts try to get out of their comfort zone at least once per day as a new employee, and either ask if they can join others for lunch or invite someone to have coffee with them. Position this as an opportunity to learn more about a co-worker’s role and how you can be of help to them in yours. When the invitation is made this way, most people are delighted to have a 15- to 20-minute coffee meeting, according to Petrilli.
“Encourage yourself to get out of your comfort zone and take that first step,” she said. “You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll be seen as someone who is very proactive at learning how they can be of help to others in the organisation.”
Build trust first. In her research, Dotan has categorised the types of friendships formed in a workplace, and of these, she maintains that probably the most beneficial type is the trust-based friendship, which is a relationship formed after two people have come to trust each other first as professionals. In general, people at work like to be friends with others who are trustworthy, reliable, and professionally competent.
“Forming these trust-based friendships can be a source of happiness for many employees,” she said. “Those are the best type of friendships for both individuals and organisations in terms of outcomes — individuals are more motivated, they perform better, they’re more loyal to the organisation, and they actually exert something called organisational citizenship behaviour, meaning they go out of their way for the organisation and do extra things that are not required in their job titles.”
The path to developing trust-based friendships is fairly straightforward, but it may require a bit of patience. Make sure you’re consistently honest, genuine, communicate openly with your colleagues, and perform your job really well, Dotan said.
Propose group activities. It’s very likely you’re not the only person hoping to form more substantial relationships in the office, so try proposing an informal group activity to your co-workers and see how they respond.
“Inviting co-workers to a networking event that your local college or university’s alumni club is hosting is a great way to get to know them in a comfortable setting, particularly if the event includes a presentation on a topic relevant to work,” Petrilli said.
Manage expectations. Remember that you’re probably going to see these people every day and work together, so there’s no need to rush into deeply emotional friendships.
“You don’t have to meet every day after work, and you don’t need your families to meet — it’s OK just to have a more casual friendship, especially if there are hierarchical differences,” Dotan said.
And due to the dual nature of workplace friendships, it’s important to communicate regularly and manage expectations.
“Aligning expectations is often the key of managing these dual relationships,” she said. “Saying something like, ‘We’re going to go into this meeting knowing I’m your friend, but I may need possibly to vote against you today.’ Before these things come up, communicate them ahead of time, so they’re not disappointed and can plan ahead.”
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.