What are jobs good for, anyway? I mean, aside from the money and career prospects? I submit it’s the free pizza, the free toilet paper, and the free friends—not necessarily in that order. And now, a new op-ed suggests we’ve stopped getting cozy with our coworkers for a variety of reasons. What gives?
Before we delve: If this research is true, it is super saddening. Not using work as a playground for future friend or romantic prospects seems, if nothing else, a missed opportunity. If you’re clocking even 20 hours a week at some job, you should milk it for all its worth, because lord knows that is what your employer is doing to you.
In a NYT op-ed, Adam Grant writes that Americans’ interest in making work friends had dropped considerably over the years. Grant writes:
In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 percent. And in nationally representative surveys of American high school seniors, the proportion who said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends dropped from 54 percent in 1976, to 48 percent in 1991, to 41 percent in 2006.
We may start companies with our friends, but we don’t become friends with our co-workers. “We are not only ‘bowling alone,’ ” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, observes, “We are increasingly ‘working alone.’”
And get this: Only a third of Americans have invited work friends over to their house—compared to 71 percent of those surveyed in India. Grant also cites research that finds Americans struggling to pick up on “socioemotional” aspects of work interactions, from talking about what you’re up to for the weekend to more subtle communication surrounding ordinary tasks.
He offers some theories about this strange all-work, no-play mindset. One, long-term employment is rarer than ever—if most of us jump around every few years, we’re less likely to really cement the deeper friendships that can accompany putting in decades at one company. Furthermore, virtual work or flextime can keep us literally apart from our coworkers, disrupting the potential for deeper bonds. (Grant also cites studies that suggest that, as long as you show up in person at least half the week, you can apparently maintain interpersonal harmony.) It could be that we all have so many other “real-life” friends we maintain via social media (or, at least, pretend to) that we mistakenly feel like the friend bus is full. It could also be that the American workplace culture is deeply rooted in the Protestant work ethic, designed entirely to keep our noses to the silent grind.
Probably, he argues, we think more of work as something to clock in and out of as efficiently as possible so as to get on to our actual lives—and friends—than a place to nurture lifelong connections, even after we move on to new prospects.
This is our mistake, Grant notes. Having friends at work increases work happiness, whether it’s actually making it more fun, or performing better at problem-solving. Some companies try to foster these friendships with work activities and eating together. And it doesn’t take much to do this, since “a single interaction marked by respect, trust and mutual engagement is enough to generate energy for both parties.”
Commenters on the piece argue all sorts of additional theories as to why today’s workers might be friend-averse on the job: too many crossed professional lines when you blur boundaries; maybe you work with a bunch of crazies, in which case, better to keep your distance; as you get older, you get more selective about who you spend time with; hostile environments and legal liabilities are all too fraught to make work friends worth it; and my favorite, from “Katherine” in Richmond, Va.: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
But I’ve always considered myself incredibly lucky on the work-friend score. Most of my best friends are from work, and I’ve always gravitated toward environments where likeminded people were plentiful. Jobs where I couldn’t make friends were the worst places I’d ever worked—and coincidentally places I couldn’t escape a second too soon— because nothing eases the suffering of tedious work like some basic camaraderie.
But work friends need not be soulmates. There are so many “single-serving” friends you can find at a job: Fight Club was disdainful of the limited interaction, but single-serving buddies have their place and real value.
The best thing about good work friends is that they can fit a dizzying variety of perfectly acceptable compatibilities that may have zero relevance outside the office, and yet, they are as crucial to your work happiness as any relationship you may endeavor.
Let’s consider a few:
Ever meet someone at work who just knows how to crush it in exactly the same way you do? And you make a great team? And you both totally “get” the job, and you’re good at it, and you have a true synchronicity of collaboration and understanding? You can talk about work all day long, strategize, theorize, and you’re just in it? And when you see a slacker you can just look at each other and roll your eyes and know? Lots of high fives.
You have a bad attitude—they have a bad attitude. They know every pitfall of this place, every weak link, every bad management call, every demoralizing email, every linguistic misstep, and they are right there with you to commiserate. Never hates your bad mood.
Someone actually notices how hard you work! Your contribution! Your value! And what’s more, they say it out loud—hopefully come review time. Covers for you when you need to take a long lunch or leave early.
This person is heavily invested in the outcome of the company, personnel changes, who is coming, who is going, who is up to what, who thinks the company should go in this direction or that. If armchairing the abstract future of you and your fellow colleagues is your thing, this person is a dream work friend. Always in the know.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: Someone you go to lunch with at work, someone whom it’s highly possible you wouldn’t even go to lunch with outside of work. But when you’re both at work, and it’s time to eat, you are both so very good at leaving the office, procuring food, and consuming it together over pleasant chit-chat for about an hour.
Got a hot sec? Need to recap the thing you both you watched to pass five minutes? Talk sports? Buy some weed? Get discount painkillers? Marvel at that new record? You know what to do.
If it weren’t for this person, why would you even need to brush your hair?
Someone has seen it all, done it all, lived to tell, and wants to help. Let them!
In the same way you can fashion a human-type figure out of a few old paper towel rolls and a cool scarf, sometimes you can fashion a friend out of a human who happens to sit nearby and also does the same job as you. You have nothing in common except who cuts your paycheck. But hey—here you are. Lean in.
This is the work friend who is like, very nearly an actual real friend on paper, whom you maybe share great laughs and pass the time excellently together at work, but when you try to move things outside the old daily grind, some magic gets lost in the process and everything goes to Dullsville. They are always trying to get drinks or see a movie, but you just can’t achieve liftoff. Still fine!
You know what this is—a person who is good enough to be a real-life, actual, honest-to-God friend, who just happens to also work where you do. Don’t blow it. And don’t quit.
Image via Netflix.