Do you have friends at work?
It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?
When I started in work back in the 80s, work was very much a social place. By that I mean there was a lot of social interaction, as well as the fact that socialising with your colleagues being encouraged.
I made friends there that I am still in touch with and when we meet, we pick up where we left off.
As well as these deep and lasting relationships, I developed many other relationships that made work more enjoyable and fun and helped the wheels turn more smoothly.
This was partly a factor of the way work was done back then. Before computers and email, before workflow apps and process maps, you got things done by going and speaking to people. Face-to-face interaction was high because it was actually quite difficult to produce written materials and instructions, and even harder to circulate them.
However, businesses actively encouraged social interaction. When I first started at BT, we had tea ladies who would come around with the trolley in the morning and afternoon and everyone would stop for a cup of tea and a chat. Lunch was something you ate in the canteen, spending time with your colleagues and learning more about each other. Eating at your desk was seen as odd and anti-social.
Many organisations had staff social clubs, some boasted impressive country-club style sport and leisure facilities. They frequently supported clubs and groups around various non-work interests. Social cohesion was seen as important, valuable and worth investing in.
Today, the landscape seem very different. The nature of work has changed, far more interaction is electronic, communication styles tend towards broadcast rather than conversation, work is often much more defined and constricted. The focus is on productivity, efficiency and maximising the output of the individual. Workplace surveillance is becoming widespread and ‘frivolous’ and ‘unproductive’ activities like chatting to your work colleagues is sometimes discouraged or even prohibited.
Companies invest less and less in encouraging social cohesion, the social clubs and playing fields have been sold off, there’s no space for clubs and societies to operate. As workloads have expanded and days lengthened, people have neither the time nor energy to take part in social activities outside the working day. With the ‘always on’ demands of mobile technologies, is there any time that is ‘outside the working day’?
What’s the result of this? Stress and anxiety are at record levels, productivity has flat-lined and engagement levels are at an all-time low. There’s a lack of the creativity, innovation and collaboration that organisations desperately need. Are these connected?
Well, research shows that someone who has a friend at work has much higher levels of engagement and is far less likely to leave. Having friends at work also builds trust and the psychological safety that comes from knowing someone has your back, two essential conditions for creativity, innovation and collaboration.
Friends at work aren’t really a ‘nice to have’, they are an essential part of our workplace. They are good for the people and they are good for the business.
I don’t know how we managed to forget or overlook this but it’s time to put it right. For all of our sakes.