Getting along Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Hanging out with coworkers after hours can be fun — and a new survey suggests it may also benefit on-on-job performance. Fifty-seven percent of executives said that office productivity improves when coworkers are friends outside the office; nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of employees surveyed agreed. The survey, developed by Accountemps, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, included responses from 150 senior executives and 519 full- or part-time office workers.

“It makes sense that when colleagues are friends they will support each other when presented with work challenges or responsibilities. It increases team spirit in the workplace,” said Chuck Cave, vice president and regional manager for Accountemps in Cleveland, Ohio.

Smart Business spoke with Cave about the benefits and some caveats to having friendships at work.

Why are friendships important at work, and why do you think it improves productivity?

When friendships form at work — and go beyond the workplace as well — employees feel good about going to work, because part of their outside social life is at the workplace. This has the effect of increasing morale, which increases productivity. Friendships also increase retention because of the higher morale and bond to the workplace that goes beyond just a place of employment.

It seems like this might be something that businesses need to encourage. How can managers help create an atmosphere at work where friendships are encouraged?

While friendships happen spontaneously among people who have an affinity toward one another, managers can encourage this by providing more networking opportunities. Create these opportunities through brainstorming exercises, team-building events after work, department lunches or dinners.

Are there any downsides to having friendships in an office environment?

There are a few things that managers ought to be aware of when it comes to friendships in the office. First, office cliques could arise from friendships. The danger in office cliques is that other people in the department might feel left out of the friendship ‘clique’ that has formed. This can have a negative effect on morale in a department. It is helpful if managers can watch these friendships and make sure that friends are not excluding other people in the department. One way that managers can deal with this is to create teams outside of the friendships to work on projects together.

Another risk is ‘group-think’ taking over. This is when a group of friends get together in a meeting and they are so close that they always agree with one another. This can stifle productive brainstorming sessions since sometimes it is beneficial to have members of the group disagree and bring out opposing viewpoints. Friends may genuinely agree with one another, or they may not want to rock the boat of their friendship by disagreeing.

What about friendships that become disruptive with too much idle chit-chat?

Employees themselves need to realize that there is a line they have to draw. While having conversations and fun with coworkers is fine, there could be a point when it becomes disruptive. And the manager needs to gently point out that this kind of conversation needs to take place after work or during lunch. If a manager sees that the friendships are getting in the way of work, he or she needs to set those expectations so that the friendship — although a positive influence on morale and productivity — doesn’t cross the line into total socializing and start to affect the workplace in a negative way.

What about friendships that cross the line into romantic relationships?

According to a poll from Society for Human Resource Management, 58 percent of managers feel that office romantic relationships are completely unprofessional; and 38 percent feel that they always end in disaster. More often than not, this kind of relationship in an office environment has a negative impact on morale and is generally frowned upon.

CHUCK CAVE is vice president and regional manager for Accountemps in Cleveland, Ohio. Accountemps has more than 350 offices throughout North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and offers online job search services at www.accountemps.com. Reach Cave at (216) 621-4253 or chuck.cave@rhi.com.