How to make (and keep) friends at work

There’s an old-school belief that in order to be professional, you shouldn’t be friends with your colleagues, much less your subordinates or boss.

I’m calling BS; Work is a great place for friends. I suspect the notion of “no friends at work” was likely propelled by a generation of leaders who operated in a rigid hierarchy that underindexed on empathy, compassion and sometimes basic human decency. So, unsurprisingly, they weren’t making a lot of friends at the office.

This historical thinking drastically underestimates the nuance and maturity (most) humans are capable of. Research tells us friendship has huge benefits at work.

In Tom Rath’s book, “Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Live Without,” he reports that employees who have best friends at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs — and, if they have at least three vital friends at work, 96% more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

We know there’s a huge upside. But making friends as an adult can be awkward (especially at dreaded Zoom happy hours). Here are three tips to help.

Openly admit that you want friends

This is no time to play too-cool-for-school. If you want friends, say so, out loud. You’ll be surprised how many people are actively (but quietly) looking for the same.

Saying: I’m hoping to spend more time with friends this year is a soft bridge, because after two years of social distancing, who isn’t trying to do the same?

Use social media (cautiously)

If the thought of adding your cubicle-mate on Instagram makes you cringe, you don’t have to. You can use the power of the internet to your advantage.

Forwarding a meme, a recipe or a funny TikTok to a co-worker can cut through the formality of email and make your relationship more affable.

To have a friend, be a friend

Model the kinds of relationships you want. Do you want people to ask about your weekend, your kids or your new affinity for rock climbing? Ask about their life.

Showing genuine interest in other people is the fast track to friendship. It sounds simple (it is simple) but in the businesses of packed calendars, it’s something we often relegate to “when I have more time.”

Now you might be thinking: Do these guidelines also apply to my boss? The answer is yes. Of course, boss-employee relationships are more complex than peer relationships, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be friends.

Several months ago, I caught up with a former colleague who, like me, had left our alma-mater employer P&G many years earlier. He was talking about one of his good friends at work. He said, “Well, I worked for him on this account. But then through a reorg, he ended up working for me.” He went on to say. “We worked for each other switching roles on and off for a decade or so.”

And they stayed friends. No matter who the “boss” was at the time. Friendship is like every other relationship.

So what happens if you have to fire your friend because the business is underperforming? Well, it sucks. But if you’re an empathetic, heart-centered leader — firing anyone sucks.

What about if your friend has to give you a not-great performance review? Wouldn’t it be better if it came from someone who knew really cared about you, and wanted you to get better?

The rules about having friends at work are changing. People start businesses with their friends, they refer their friends into great companies and they partner with their friends on world-changing work. Business has enough awkward handshakes (or, uh, fist bumps). It’s a lot better when we actually like each other.

Can friendship at work make things a little bit messy? Yes. But it also makes work a lot more fun, interesting and productive. It’s an upside that’s well worth a moment or two of potential awkwardness.