The value of workplace friendships

Carrie Kennedy (left) and Meghan Hermsen both work at Clarke University and have been friends for 20 years. PHOTO CREDIT: Nicki Kohl

Think for a moment about your close friends and recall how and where you met them. Chances are that you’ve met some of your friends at your current or former workplace.

After all, we spend one-third of our life at work, it makes sense that co-workers would form a bond while completing on-the-job projects and engaging socially after work hours. Social connection is something that everyone needs. During the pandemic, the social connections have been limited to Zoom calls, texts and emails, which aren’t as fulfilling as in-person communications.

There’s a difference between workplace friendships and other workplace relationships because friendships have a more personal focus. They are more likely to be formed on the basis of factors such as personality, observed similarities and shared interests. People want to be friends with people they like and can relate to.

Having close friends at work has been shown to increase job satisfaction, job involvement, job performance, team cohesion and decreases turnover.

Human Resources Plays a Role

Human resource managers are important in helping to foster workplace friendships. Kim Budde, senior vice president of human resources at Kunkel & Associates, said the company offers many opportunities for staff to make connections during the work day as well as after work hours.

Kunkel, a commercial insurance brokerage and consulting firm, has 85 employees between the headquarters in Dubuque and offices in Madison, Wis., and Kansas City, Kan. The company has been ranked as one of the top 100 Iowa businesses for employee engagement in the annual state of Iowa engagement survey.

“We do a ton of activities throughout the year including a summer picnic, a Christmas party, secret Santa, Halloween parties with costumes and pumpkin carving and tailgating events for the family where employees bring their kids and coolers,” Budde said.

“We also do community service events, volunteering in the community, bowling, running events. We have a men’s softball team and team golf outings. We try to offer activities that will appeal to employees in some way.”

Budde added that the pandemic has changed employee engagement events to virtual events.

“Now we do events online and we have the Microsoft Team app to message each other. During Halloween, we had staff post photos of themselves as kids dressed in Halloween costumes and did a contest for everyone to guess who was pictured. We would close the office early on Fridays to relax and have a beer, now we do that virtually.

New employees at Kunkel meet the existing staff through weekly coffee talks. Once the staff is able to return to the office, the new employees will be able to identify their co-workers.

Sharing life’s events

Meghan Wagner, 40 and Sarah Adams, 39, met 19 years ago when Wagner was hired as a provider service representative and Adams was a service trainer/specialist at Cottingham and Butler.

“I had just graduated from the University of Dubuque. Sarah was already working at Cottingham and Butler. She was my go-to-girl for any questions that I had. She was always willing to answer my questions and was lots of fun to work with,” Wagner said.

“Meghan joined our team through a temp agency along with many other employees,” Adams said. “I was assigned to provide training and lead this team on provider projects. At the end of their contract, I was to pick one of the temporary workers to stay on as an employee.”

“Along, with Meghan’s positive attitude and professionalism, she was a quick learner and provided our team with solutions to problems. She always carried herself with honesty and integrity. I asked myself, which one of these employees would our company lose out on, if we didn’t keep them, and the answer was Meghan. Now, years later, even though we no longer work together, we are in each other’s lives and are still close friends.”

“We used to go out for happy hour on Thursdays with a group that also worked at Cottingham and Butler,” Wagner said. “We often went to Dubuque … and All that Jazz on Friday nights after work; we have celebrated many birthdays, celebrated our weddings and celebrated our kids birthdays together. We have had lunch dates, girls night and played bunco together. It’s guaranteed to be a blast every time we are together.”

Friends since their early 20s, Wagner and Adams helped each other weather multiple career changes, multiple long-term relationship break-ups, dating, school, weddings, divorce, a surprise wedding, the births of Wagner’s four children and Adams two children.

“So much life has happened since we met,” Wagner said.

“When we first met, there was a magnetic force that pulled us together and has kept us together for all of these years,” Adams said. “I think of all the fun times we had together, the memories we made and the collection of memories ahead. The strongest attribute that runs right along with our friendship is laughter. I don’t mean just any ‘ol good humor, but the real ‘belly hurting’ laughs and tears.”

“We both share the same love and devotion for friendship, family and faith,” Adams added.

Not only did Wagner find a best friend at C&B, but she found her husband, Josh Wagner, there as well.

“Aside from meeting my husband, Sarah was the next best thing that happened to me while I worked at C&B,” Wagner said.

Now, Wagner is a stay-at-home mom and recently went back to school. Adams works at Unified Therapy Services as the director of business operations and development.

Statistics about workplace friendships

In 1985, statistics showed that nearly half of Americans had a “close” pal at the office. By 2004 only 30% of workers had a “close” pal at the office. The percentage of people who say they care about having friends at work drops from 54% among baby boomers to 41% among millennials.

Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, has conducted extensive studies on the value of workplace friendships. Over 15 million employees from across the globe were asked if they have a “best friend at work.” This specific wording was used because research conducted earlier showed that having a “best friend” at work was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes that simply having a “friend” or a “good friend.”

The Gallup research revealed that just 30% of employees have a best friend at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being and are less likely to get injured on the job. In contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a one in 12 chance of engagement in the workplace.

Suddenly Friends

Meghan Hermsen, 42, and Carrie Kennedy, 44, each work in different departments at Clarke University. Hermsen is the office manager and Kennedy is the assistant women’s basketball coach. They met prior to their jobs at Clarke, while working at Cottingham and Butler where Hermsen was an account manager and Kennedy was an account administrator.

Friends for 17 years, Kennedy says that she doesn’t recall how they met.

“Suddenly we were just friends. Although Meghan and I are not related, she is my sister. I am so thankful we met while working at C&B. In fact, if it wasn’t for her twisting my arm to go to the Town Clock for All that Jazz, that one Friday night, I wouldn’t have met my husband.”

“We have served as president and vice president of the parent association at our kids’ school,” Hermsen said. “We’ve supported each other through job changes, multiple pregnancies, ill parents, weddings and raising children around the same ages. We build a strong bond day-after-day with a lot of laughs to get us through those events and the stresses of work.”

Work Connectivity Index

There’s a way to determine the strength of your relationships at work. Dan Schawbel author of the book, “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation,” along with Dr. Keven Rockmann, professor of management at the George Mason School of Business in Virginia, created the Work Connectivity Index, a free self-assessment.

The assessment helps those who take the 15 minute survey become more self-aware to how connected or isolated they are from those they work with. After completing the survey, results and an explanation are emailed to the participant. Check it out at: danschawbel.com/work-connectivity-index-wci.

Once, twice, three times coworkers

Justine Paradiso, 33 and Samantha Bruck, 31 met each other at Cottingham and Butler in 2013 when both worked in the small trucking division. Since then, they’ve worked together at two more Dubuque employers.

“Samantha got me a part-time job working evenings at Pepper Sprout restaurant,” Paradiso said. “Then we both worked at the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, which is where I currently work.” Paradiso is the marketing and programs manager at the Chamber. Bruck works at Dupaco Community Credit Union as an insurance services representative.

Paradiso says she can’t recall exactly how she met Bruck.

“I feel like we already knew each other and were just picking up on an existing friendship. We clicked instantly and even though our friendship was new, I knew it would last. When I got engaged in 2015, I asked Sam to be part of my wedding. I was there to send her off when she decided to join the Army and when she was discharged for an injury I was happy to welcome her back with open arms.”

“I was at the Chamber for about three years when we were in need of a new membership manager and Sam was the first person I thought of with her energy, passion, and big heart. I know I can call her at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning and if I need her she’d be there,” Paradiso added.

“Justine has always been a great friend and supporter of whatever I do,” Bruck said. “She was the first to greet me when I came back to Dubuque from the Army. She supported me as I searched for what I wanted to do next in my life. I was so happy to work with her again in 2019 when I joined the Chamber. It was like we were never separated as co-workers. When I decided to leave the Chamber and join Dupaco, I had the hardest time telling Justine. As always, she welcomed my decision with open arms and a big smile.”

“I’ve watched Justine grow so much from the time we worked together at Cottingham & Butler,” Bruck said. “I’ve seen her become a loving wife and mother. My favorite has been watching her master the task of being a great mom. Being able to watch her daughter grow up is an absolute joy. She looks more and more like her beautiful mother every day. I am very excited for the journeys that lie ahead for us in life. I know that I will have a wonderful and loving friend who will always be at my side,” Bruck said.

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