With the rise of workplace perks such as unlimited paid vacation and flexible work-from-home policies, it would be fair to assume freedom and autonomy are of utmost importance to today’s workers.
But in recent surveys, happy employees were more likely to report that people — colleagues, mentors, bosses or workplace friends — were the reason they loved their work.
Relationships with colleagues have always played a role in workplace satisfaction, but experts said it’s possible these office relationships are more critical today than they once were.
Thanks to the technology-fueled modern lifestyle, people are experiencing more social isolation than years past. With younger generations, church has fallen out of style, dinner parties have died, and neighbors are just strangers who live next door. Human interaction is even being removed from daily life tasks like ordering lunch and shopping for groceries. A new feature of the Uber app even lets riders request that their drivers not speak to them at all.
“We’ve lost many forums, churches, and places where we had more time to discover meaningful relationships,” said Dan Negroni, a talent development consultant in San Diego. “Gone are the days of apprenticeship and mentorship for learning. Now we’re self-learning through platforms like YouTube.”
For many adults, that leaves one daily institution for them to form social bonds: the workplace. And employers should take note, because these social connections could be a meaningful contributor to worker performance, satisfaction and retention.
What happens when you have friends at work?
An extensive body of research dating back to the 1980s shows that workplace friendships reduce turnover and absenteeism, as well as boosting feelings of job security, comfort and job satisfaction.
Employees with friends at work also tend to engage in altruistic behaviors like providing co-workers with help, guidance, advice, or feedback with various work-related matters.
Peer-reviewed research published in the journal American Psychologist also suggests that companies can benefit from such friendships, as these workers help each other and communicate well.
Negroni said startups and other modern companies aren’t off-base by offering free lunches, kombucha on-tap, and video games in the breakroom. But it’s not because of the perks, but rather the social gatherings that they inspire.
“The frat environment might actually work,” Negroni said. “A Cornell study showed that workplaces are more productive if people eat together. Employers don’t do this because millennials are entitled and want the perk. They’re doing this because we connect by sharing meals.”
The 2015 study looked at firefighter platoons who eat meals together vs. those that dine solo. The group eaters received higher marks for their team performance. The study’s author, Kevin Kniffin, an applied economics professor, said the intimacy of sharing a meal spills over to other tasks.
“From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue,” he said. “That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”
At Shield AI, a robotics startup in San Diego, CEO Ryan Tseng said the company was very deliberate in creating their culture.
Tseng said Shield AI makes an effort to know their employees as people, making sure they’re taking care of themselves and that they’re taking time for their family, friends, and “the things that energize them.”
“Co-workers have a huge influence on the way you feel at work and how you feel when you go home,” Tseng said.
Negroni, who specializes in helping bridge generational gaps between baby boomers and younger workers like millennials or Gen Z, said he believes social connection is especially important for younger staff. They often haven’t built social skills by the time they reach the office and find themselves isolated and unsure how to establish meaningful relationships.
“They’re not learning these things in school, and then they get to the workplace and we expect them to know it,” Negroni said.
Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University, said it’s not just younger workers who need and value human connection in the workplace.
“Blurring the boundaries between your personal life and your work life might be more comfortable for younger generations, but the need for social connection is universal,” Kirmayer said.
She noted that older generations may actually feel the change of modern living — and the ensuing isolation — more acutely because they have benefited from social groups in the past. And they know what they’re missing.
While social bonds at work can be a boon for retention and employee satisfaction, some employers still feel a need to establish boundaries among workers. A 2007 study reported that friendships at work can lead to difficulties for management and negative emotions if friendships turn bitter.
Kirmayer, who works with corporations as a consultant, said problems can come up if friendships are threatened by changing hierarchies.
Tseng said he believes leaders can be both kind and supportive of friendships, while also strict when necessary to cultivate the right balance within an organization.
“If someone is doing poorly — taking on challenging commitments and not delivering — then you need to tell them where they need to be, but also be kind about it,” Tseng said.