Article: Friends at work: Enabler or distraction?

Employee Relations

Friends at work: Enabler or distraction?

A study seeks to understand the role work-friends play in our lives.
Friends at work: Enabler or distraction?

Not everybody finds best friends in colleagues. If anything, work and professional relationships can be considered results of incidence and convenience; wherein people who work in the same team end up being friendly. But connecting and interacting with like-minded colleagues, bosses and teammates also mean that chances of finding social, friendly relationships are high as well. Many times, people who have been friends end up as colleagues as well. These multiplex relationships, or relationships having multiple contexts, have been the center of an interesting study, reports a recent article in Harvard Business Review. 

What is the study?

Jessica Methot, Rutgers University, led a group of professors, namely, Jeffery Lepine, Nathan Podsakoff and Jessica Seigel Christian, to study the development and impact of multiple relationships in an organization. The article 'Are Workplace Friendships a Mixed Blessing? Exploring Tradeoffs of Multiplex Relationships and their Associations with Job Performance' collates their findings.

For the purpose of the study, 168 employees from an insurance organization in South-Eastern USA were surveyed. By allowing employees to temporarily shift positions horizontally, the employees were encouraged to know their colleagues better, and not just the immediate team members they usually work with. Then, all employees were asked to list up to 10 colleagues whom they would approach to get help in a work-related challenge (therefore establish a work-related tie). Furthermore, all were asked to list another 10 co-workers whom they considered friends (therefore establish a personal tie). These lists helped the researchers in mapping networks of multiplex relationships in the organization. 

Employees were also asked about emotional exhaustion and work environment, and employee supervisors were asked to fill out performance appraisals sometime four to six weeks after the survey was conducted. 

What did the researchers find?

How employees viewed their colleagues helped the researchers understand how multiplex networks impacted performance, burnout, and how positive or negative the work environment was. They found that co-workers who eventually became friends had significantly improved performance, as the appraisal by their supervisor showed. This was attributed to the fact that people sought more advice from others when they became friendly. Furthermore, having friends in different departments means exposure to otherwise unknown information and networks. Lastly, working with people you are friends with, boosts morale and results in overall positive work culture and environment.

So far, so good. In fact, many of the above results are the expected benefits of having friends at workplace. But here’s where things get interesting. The biggest cost of having friends at work is being distracted. Socializing breaks, chats and talks might take away precious time. Next, the chances of being emotionally exhausted are also higher, since maintaining deep and important relationships is a tough job in itself. Possible conflicts could arise when one of the two friends is promoted. 

A follow-up study done with several organizations confirmed the results. Friends at work might make things emotionally exhausting, but they do increase performance and productivity. 


The authors of the study say, “Workplace friends influence performance over and above purely instrumental or pure friendship-based relationships... Collectively, our results illustrate that having a large number of multiplex friendships at work is a mixed blessing. Although the provision and restoration of resources fostered by multiplex relationships benefit employee job performance, these benefits are muted somewhat by the personal resources they deplete.”

The findings of the study are rather significant for organizations, especially considering how everyone is finding unique solutions to keep the workforce engaged and productive. The impact of interpersonal relationships at work has been studied extensively, but very few initiatives have been taken to foster the same within organizations. Furthermore, as the researchers say, such multiplex relationships come with the threat of emotional drainage as well. Nonetheless, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The onus of being friendly and socializing with colleagues is mostly with the employee himself/herself, and more often than not, depends on the kind of individual they are. Then, it’s only logical to ask, can companies even work out a way for their employees to be friends, or friendly? Is it even possible to create a system wherein all employees are on good terms with each other?

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Topics: Employee Relations, Life @ Work, #Culture, Watercooler

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