Friends at work Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Getting together with the gang after work can be fun — and, as a survey suggests, may be good for business.

Fifty-seven percent of executives recently polled said that office friendships help on-the-job performance for employees; 63 percent of the employees themselves agreed. But managers and employees aren’t as aligned when it comes to just how beneficial it is to have buddies on the job: Twenty-two percent of employees said befriending coworkers has a “very positive” impact on productivity while only 2 percent of managers felt as strongly.

The surveys, 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.

“Friendships at work establish that people get along and can work well together,” said Lisa Morgan, branch manager at Accountemps in Akron, Ohio. “Friendships can be a wonderful win-win for both the employee and the company and create a very nice team atmosphere.”

Smart Business spoke with Morgan about the benefits, as well as some drawbacks, to mixing friendships and work responsibilities.

Since friendships can help productivity in the workplace, what can managers do to encourage friendships in the office environment?

Supervisors can create an environment where coworkers are encouraged to celebrate each other’s successes. This can be done through team-building lunches, trainings, retreats and brainstorming sessions. It is beneficial to try and get workers outside the office environment, since this often helps foster friendships.

In the survey, managers were less enthusiastic in their response about how friendships affect work productivity in the office. Why do you think they have a different view about this?

Because managers have a different level of responsibility, they probably tend to look at friendships with a more critical eye. For example, as an employee, I might think it would be wonderful to work with all of my friends, and I might not think of the consequences of how it might affect my work performance — positively or negatively. As a manager, however, I would view this more critically. I would think how this could impact the work environment if it is not managed correctly.

What might be some of the downsides to having friendships at work?

There might be several. For one, if the friendship starts to exclude other people, it might have a negative impact on morale within a department. Another would be bringing too much personal talk into the office environment, such as talk about weekend plans, what they did last night — in general, just too much socializing.

From a manager’s standpoint, it is important for everyone to be an equal part of the team and intense friendships can be viewed as clique-ish. A way a manager can handle this would be to occasionally form work groups using different departments (if that’s appropriate) to tackle projects.

The manager might also want to talk to the friends if too much socializing is preventing workflow, or excluding other individuals in the office. Friends may not even realize they are excluding others, and just pointing it out in a non-threatening way may be enough for them to start including others, or to pare down the idle chit-chat that might be going on.

Is there a way for a manager to bring these issues up without discouraging the friendship?

It is a fine line, but a good manager will not want to discourage a positive friendship. The key is to keep the lines of communication open with employees and have one-on-one conversations with the friends should problems arise. These issues should never be aired in public. It is important for the manager not to give the impression that there is something wrong with having a friend in the office, only that behavior such as excluding others, or too much socializing is impacting workflow or morale.

Office friendships are one thing, but what about office romances?

Having an office romance is vastly different from having office friendships. It’s taking office friendship to the extreme level, and some view it as crossing the line. Most managers view this as unprofessional and having the potential of wreaking havoc on office morale. If it does happen, the public display of affection needs to be non-existent during office hours, and the couple should not be exclusively with each other every second of the day. Overall, it is a very hard line to walk. If friendships can become cliquish, romantic relationships are the extreme version of this that can really shut other people out.

LISA MORGAN is a branch manager with Accountemps based in Akron, 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 Morgan at (330) 253-8367 or lisa.morgan@rhi.com.