Why Workplace Friendships Are Essential to Employee Engagement

I’m willing to bet you, dear reader, have come across an article (or ten) about the importance of employee engagement. We’ve been hearing a lot about this topic with people saying it’s crucial, companies that have engaged workforces see lower turnover and higher profits, and we’d all do well to invest in programs that promote employee engagement.

But here’s something that’s rarely discussed: its impact on workplace friendships. Whether with a manager, a peer, a client, or someone in another department, engaged employees are interested in developing friendships in the workplace, which in turn positively affect organizational outcomes and company culture.

Workplace Friendships & Employee Engagement

But first, how much do workplace relationships really even matter? Is today’s workplace a transactional experience, where one shows up, completes his or her tasks, and heads back home for leisure time? Interestingly, the American workplace has been trending in exactly that direction.

In the last 30 years, the number of people reporting a friend at work has dropped by over 20 percent. And employee engagement has been trending down, with the percentage of engaged employees dropping by just over five percent in the last five years.

Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation – but it’s still interesting to think about, right? Adam Grant, professor of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, explored this link between workplace friendships and job effectiveness in a great op-ed article. He shared, “Jobs are more satisfying when they provide opportunities to form friendships. Research shows that groups of friends outperform groups of acquaintances.”

He also wrote, “When friends work together, they’re more trusting and committed to one another’s success.” That means they share more information and spend more time helping each other, which leads to better choices and getting more done.

Here’s the Proof: Stats on Workplace Friendships

Along with the studies referenced by Grant, there are a few more interesting considerations as to why workplace friendships are important to organizational success:

  • Having a good relationship with your direct manager is the single biggest indicator of turnover potential. Low turnover leads to lower HR costs and better knowledge retention, among other things. US businesses lose $11 billion annually because of employee turnover.
  • Teams, departments, and organizations with high engagement rely less on rigid hierarchical structures to get things done. In this kind of less-structured environment, employees develop the relationships necessary to influence the organization, which is a key component of successful organizations.
  • An environment where relationships, rather than transactions, is encouraged tends to be more inclusive and progressive. This allows for diverse employee populations to interconnect and encourages innovation.

Building Trust in the Workplace

Engagement and workplace friendships are closely related because both require trust. An engaged employee has a level of trust in leadership, process or tools, ability to grow, or whatever else happens to motivate and excite him or her. Trust is also a fundamental component in developing strong relationships, so if your workplace inspires has an environment where you can discover and develop meaningful relationships, chances are you have an engaged workforce.

On the other hand, an employee who is disengaged may feel isolated, unsupported, or otherwise set up to fail. This inhibits trust and reduces the likelihood that the employee will invest in workplace relationships. As LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams says, “Workplace relationships are ever-changing and an important factor in shaping both office dynamics and individual job development. This means creating an office culture that resonates across generations, roles, and personalities is a critical factor in building a successful working relationship.”

Programs That Foster Employee Engagement

Today, a few formal and informal channels for building relationships are common in organizations. There’s a tendency to go to happy hour or participate in team building events, which helps foster one-on-one and team relationships. It’s also common to see onboarding programs, which create connections within groups of new hires.

These are great starts, but what’s missing are programs that can connect people more broadly across the organization. Such programs would capitalize on the same relationship-building benefits seen in the channels mentioned above, and spread these across departments, generations, or diversity silos.

Here are a few examples:

  • Leadership development mentoring: Instead of just focusing on leadership skills in the classroom, consider a program that connects future leaders with current leaders, other high potentials, or even new hires. Not only will future leaders gain skills in the abstract sense, but they’ll also have practice applying them in the unique environment of their organization while also building a mentorship network to support them in their new role.
  • Onboarding or acquisition buddy programs: Most onboarding programs focus on company culture, structure, expectations, processes, and tools. However, outside of introducing new hires to key people like their manager or HR rep, companies place little emphasis on building other relationships. A buddy program encourages a new hire (or an employee gained through an acquisition!) to connect with people who have more experience in the organization and can help them learn the ropes in the real workplace, not just a classroom.
  • General career development networks: These days employees aren’t sticking around with the same company for life. It’s often said the best way to get a raise or a new position is to move to another organization. Offering a career development program that encourages people to connect within the organization, discover new opportunities, and build friendships is an effective way to improve engagement and keep turnover low. This type of program can also encourage reverse mentoring, which gives highly tenured employee a chance to learn from younger generations.
  • Circles and project groups – Break down silos and encourage employee ownership of new ideas or connections by offering a mentoring circles program at your company.
A Growing Trend: Employee Engagement Programs

These are just a few flavors of programs that will help create connections across your organization. Nurturing relationships across the organization is a growing trend, and we’re seeing businesses, non-profits, and even educational institutions investing more into programs like these.

In an era where job engagement and company loyalty are declining while innovation, collaboration, and diversity are becoming ever more important, organizations that foster human connections will be the ones that thrive. By investing in programs that promote trust and relationship-building, organizations can increase both employee engagement and the strength of relationships within their company. So what about your organization? How would you rate the culture of connecting within your company, and which initiatives might help raise that score?

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