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Confirm | Delete request? Should you be friends with your work colleagues?

The friend request pops into your Facebook feed. You hesitate a little before hitting ‘confirm’ – a sure sign something isn’t sitting well with you. What’s not quite right is that request comes from a work colleague. You like them. You even get along well. But the hesitation is whether you should let them into your non-work life.

It’s a dilemma being played out across workplaces as the country gets back to business post-summer and as thousands join the workforce for the first time. Social media now plays out the dilemma in fast forward.

Now imagine that friend request isn’t just from a co-worker or someone from your team but instead from your boss. Maybe you hesitate longer. Do you truly have a choice? Amid the pressure to get along, and to get ahead, should you make friends with your work colleagues or keep a healthy, professional distance? And is blurring the line between friends-friends and work-friends a step further down the line to poor work-life balance?

In an interview with The New York Times, psychologist and management consultant Amy Cooper Hakim argues there is too much focus on having friends at work. ‘Our job at work is to work,’ she says. ‘I actually argue against having true friends in the workplace, aside from maybe a handful of people you would actually want to be friends with if you didn’t work at that company.’

But Deakin University’s Dr Amanda Allisey, an expert in occupational stress and employee health and wellbeing, says relationships, whether in the workplace or in broader society, are positive for our wellbeing. And that goes for individuals and organisations.

‘Work and the workplaces have tended to take on an increasingly important role in our lives,’ Dr Allisey argues. ‘We spend more time at work than ever before, our sense of meaning and purpose can often be linked to our work, and some of our longest standing friendships can be made through the workplace.’

Are our relationships at work different to our other relationships?

We know that our relationships outside of work are important. In fact they’re essential to our wellbeing. Those who are lonely have far greater risks to their mental and physical health, and can predict early death, Dr Allisey says. But what about our relationships at work? Are they as important?

Research suggests they are. According to Gallup, one of the biggest factors in whether a worker stays at or leaves their workplace is their answer to the prompt “I have a best friend at work”. Workplaces where people had best friends had higher engagement and lower turnover.

'We spend more time at work than ever before, our sense of meaning and purpose can often be linked to our work, and some of our longest standing friendships can be made through the workplace.'

Dr Amanda Allisey,
Senior Lecturer, Deakin University

In a moderately to highly engaged atmosphere, the research found friends stay together, and turnover is 18% less per year for teams with many best friends, in comparison to those with few best friends. On the whole, workplace relationships are positive for both individuals and organisations, Dr Allisey says.

But should you be friends with your boss?

If having friends in the workplace is beneficial, what about when it comes to your boss? Dr Allisey argues a friendship with your boss is as achievable and as valuable as one with your colleagues. ‘Good working relationships will take you far in life, regardless of whether those relationships are with your superiors or your peers,’ she says.

Trust is the key ingredient to a friendship with your boss, argues Dr Allisey. And it can help encourage higher performance. ‘Evidence has consistently demonstrated that in cases where there are high trust relationships between leaders and followers, teammates, and peers, higher performance is the result,’ she says.

But, if you’re going to be friends with your boss – remember to set boundaries and expectations, Dr Allisey says, to set up strong relationships and navigate any tricky situations.

Has social media made it harder to manage our relationships at work?

Setting boundaries – and managing your workplace relationships – can be particularly difficult when it comes to social media. This is because most workers find that they have a ‘workplace persona’ and a separate ‘home persona’ and social media blurs the line between the two.

‘The norms that dictate workplace relationships are not present in the realm of social media and self-disclosure is typical of social media usage,’ Dr Allisey says.

While we might fear that social media shows too much of our ‘home persona’ and thereby impacts other’s views of our professionalism – it can also have a positive impact on our workplace relationships. According to Dr Allisey, there is ample evidence that ‘authenticity and openness breeds both trust and likeability’.

The trick to managing our workplace relationships therefore, is to find a balance between authenticity and professionalism. Finding ways to be both professional and authentic in the workplace are keys to ongoing success in navigating the work-life interface, Dr Allisey says.

So, should you be friends with your work colleagues?

The choice of whether to be friends with your colleagues is an individual one, Dr Allisey notes, but such friendships at work can make the workplace more enjoyable. But be careful. Often, we can mistake the necessity for civility at work, she says, with the need for friendship.

‘All individuals at work should certainly treat others with acceptance and respect … ensuring that the workplace is a pleasant environment as well as one that is free from discrimination or harassment of any kind – this does not however mean that we need to be close personal friends with our colleagues,’ she says

Generating solid relationships at work is crucial to your ongoing success. Does that mean you have to be friends with all your colleagues, Dr Allisey asks? No, but to build relationships we have to share something of ourselves, so learning how to become more authentic and open with colleagues will likely improve your work satisfaction, engagement and the team’s performance.

Interested in the dynamics of the modern workplace? Consider studying organisational psychology at Deakin University.

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Dr Amanda Allisey
Dr Amanda Allisey

Senior lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University.

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