Behind that veneer of workplace confidence, your co-workers and even your boss may harbor serious doubts about their closest relationships. That’s the finding of a groundbreaking study released today, The State of Friendship in America Report, 2013 [infographic], which sheds new light on the dire social landscape facing adults across the country. Key findings include:
– Less than a quarter of Americans say they are truly satisfied with their friendships and almost two-thirds lack confidence in even their closest friends.
– Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers are hit hardest by the trend, indicating a “mid-life friendship slump.”
– Most Americans – by more than 2-to-1 – would prefer to have deeper friendships, rather than more friends.
The study’s authors have uncovered what they call a national “friendship crisis,” and they believe it has far reaching implications in the workplace.
“Friendship is a major dynamic in people’s lives and nobody just leaves it back at home,” said Tim Walker, co-founder of Lifeboat, the group behind the report. ”We now have a scientific view of a very emotional struggle that adults report having as they try to connect with each other in the digital age.”
For managers, colleagues, marketers and HR professionals, it’s a very relevant question. Traditionalists argue that pals have no place at the office for a number of reasons. Friendship between colleagues can blur decision making, they say, making difficult decisions more complicated and leading to distractions or inappropriate behavior. How can someone operate in the best interest of the company if they’re also worried about a vital friendship – particularly when it comes to performance reviews or layoffs?
But others argue that frame is outmoded. “The question isn’t really should we mix friends and work,” says Alia McKee, co-founder of Lifeboat. “That’s inevitable. The question is how do we get it right.” She cites three major reasons why a friend-friendly workplace is critical to your company’s success.
First, the very concept of a work-life division is eroding. With employees spending more time at work – and on work at home – colleagues can become your employees’ only social option. According to the State of Friendship Report, 36 percent of adults met at least one of their closest friends at work. This rises to 42 percent for Gen-Xers (age 35-49) and to 50 percent for Baby Boomers (age 50-69).
Second, close friendships at work have business advantages, such as increased productivity and employee retention. According to a study in the Journal of Business Psychology by Christine Riordan, Ph. D., workers report higher job satisfaction when they feel they have even the opportunity for friendships. Further, a 2013 survey of 2,223 business people across Australia found people planning to stick with their current job cited “good relationship with co-workers” as the major reason (67%) – above “job satisfaction” (63%), “flexible working arrangements” (57%) and even salary (which ranked seventh at 46%).
Third, advocates argue that close friendship among colleagues must be framed in a broader context, as part of company culture. Staff with strong bonds – teams that know and care about each other beyond what’s required of their tasks and roles – can create the kind of competitive hiring advantage shared by the likes of Zappos or 1-800-Got-Junk.
Walker and McKee offer three strategies for companies to create a workplace that encourages friendships.
Go Deep, Not Wide
“Our research is clear,” says Walker, “that people don’t want more connections. By more than 2-1, we crave deeper relationships.” Instead of planning large-scale company outings like a trip to play laser tag, think small: try cross-functional retreats or 1-1 programs, like peer mentoring, which can help bring people together.
V Is For Vulnerability
Sharing who we are – our hopes, dream, fears, values – is inherently risky and can seem doubly so at work. Yet it’s the keystone to forming bonds, and part of what social scientists call the “dance of disclosure.” Says McKee, “Our experience is it won’t happen without role modeling from those in charge.” This doesn’t mean bosses should break out the tears during company calls. But, she says, “by sharing their own vulnerabilities, leaders can show that those opening up won’t be disciplined, taken advantage of, or seen as weak.”
By nature, we tend to befriend people similar to ourselves. It’s a phenomenon known as “homophily or “love of the same.” Yet much of the reward of friendship is the learning and growth that comes from colliding with different experiences. To encourage these types of collisions, try mixing up your teams in terms of age, gender, skills or nationality. Consider job-trade weeks or encourage cross-departmental projects. (These all depend, of course, on hiring diverse teams in the first place.)
Do you agree with Lifeboat that embracing friendship in the workplace can give your company a competitive edge? What’s your experience with friends at work? Do you agree that friends and work can mix?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on May 21, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.