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2 Key Factors That Make Work the Best Place to Make New Friends

People tend to make friends with people they are physically close to.

Key points

  • Most Americans spend around 90,000 hours of their life working, and it may only require 200 hours to make a new best friend.
  • Having a best friend at work improves many aspects of health and well-being as well as the profitability of the business.
  • Friendship in the workplace can introduce challenges and requires mature work cultures that prioritize strategy and honest communication.

As I mentioned in a recent post, making and keeping friends as an adult can be challenging, but there are many environments and activities that can increase the likelihood of meeting new people and forming connections.

I recently had a fascinating conversation about friendship with David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. During our conversation, he mentioned what he calls “relational containers,” or in other words, the places or environments where friendships are more likely to happen.

In this post, I will talk about one key relational container that I believe has immense potential to build and strengthen friendships: the workplace. I will also mention a few challenges of friendship at work and what managers can do to overcome some of the barriers.

What are the top predictors of friendship?

  1. Time
  2. Environment (the relational container)

Let’s start with time. Here is a graph from a recent study about where Americans spend their time across their lifespan:

Source: American Time Use Survey, CCBY
Source: American Time Use Survey, CCBY

Now look at how much time we spend with our coworkers:

American Time Use Survey, CCBY
American Time Use Survey, CCBY

Until the average retirement age (between 60 and 70), we consistently spend a lot of time with our coworkers. You can compare this plot to the time with friends plot. What if you had more friends at work? I believe there is a huge potential here because the most important predictors of friendship are built into work (time, proximity).

Kristin Elinkowski and Madison Romney recently did some really interesting research on adult friendship at the University of Pennsylvania. Their research highlighted some important keys to strengthening and maintaining friendships into adulthood. They recommended things like being vulnerable with each other, supporting each other in life dreams, reciprocating connection attempts, prioritizing time, reaching out consistently, and sharing experiences more often. Almost all of these are related to time and proximity in some way. This is why I believe work is a place where friendship really can thrive and the potential to make friends as an adult is much higher at work than almost anywhere else.

Time and Proximity Are Two Keys to Making Friends

The average American spends 90,000 hours of their life at work. This is just over 10 years of time spent at your job, be that in your office or at your desk, or staring at a computer screen. The proximity to people you are around all day really matters. Classic studies have shown that your propinquity (physical distance and frequency of contact) is a huge predictor of whether you will become friends. Over the course of your 90,000 hours of working in the same space as other people, it can be to your advantage (and to the advantage of the business you work for) to find a friend or two at work.

One study by Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas found that it only takes 200 hours of intentional time to become best friends. That is just 0.22% of the 90,000 hours you will spend at work during your life!

Why not be more intentional with the time you have with your coworkers and lean into the relationship?

Best friends at work = employee effectiveness, retention, and loyalty

If you are the manager of a team or the CEO of a company thinking that friends at work don’t matter, think again. A Gallup study recently showed that having a best friend at work has become even more important since the pandemic started, even with increases in hybrid and remote work. Employees who have a best friend at work “are significantly more likely to engage customers and internal partners, get more done in less time, innovate and share ideas, have fun while at work.” It is strongly linked to profitability, inventory control, retention, and loyalty to the company. On the other hand, a Cigna study on loneliness in America showed that employees who reported feeling lonely at work had 45% lower productivity, had two times more sick days, and were twice as likely to quit their job within a year.

Challenges of Friendship at Work

Hopefully, this gives you a few reasons to consider work as a place to make friends. However, I also understand that there are challenges to making friends at work. Personality differences exist. Work cultures at some companies are toxic. Should you be worried about conflicts of interest? Can work friendships be too strong and create exclusion of others and disrupt team dynamics?

Though I won’t address all these challenges in one post, I want to address one: vulnerability with coworkers.

Elinkowski and Romney’s research on building friendships reiterated what many studies have shown: being vulnerable (self-disclosure) is important to feel close to someone, even at work. While it may seem awkward to open up to someone at work (like your manager or your employee if you are the manager) about your dreams, some extremely successful companies know the importance of supporting the dreams of their employees and have invested in dream managers to help coach employees toward their dreams! This is a powerful way to foster friendship at work. My favorite managers have always asked me how they can help me accomplish my dreams — even the ones that have nothing to do with my job requirements.

One company called Lemonade Stand has implemented a powerful strategy to encourage friendship and closeness that they call Build Then Bless. The employees receive a certain amount of money with their paycheck which they must use to do something kind for someone else. At the end of the month, they gather (via Zoom) to share what they did to help someone with the money. This is a very effective way to get vulnerable with coworkers and a really beautiful way to make the world a little kinder, in my opinion. In our anonymous poll of this company’s employees, we found that 64% reported that they had a friend at work.

Maybe your work culture doesn’t have this, but maybe you can try something this year. You could try the Big Talk questions from Kalina Silverman. You could go on a kindness quest or a virtual recess as a team. You could even just read Radical Candor or The Dream Manager with your employees to encourage better communication.

It is more likely for friendships to occur when there isn’t a power imbalance, but a clear strategy can help overcome corporate politics and you can find ways to be close to your coworkers, whether they are above or below you.

Conclusion: Make More Friends at Work

Though there are challenges to making friends at work, the amount of time you spend and the proximity you have with coworkers makes work a prime relational container for friendships to thrive.

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