By Claire Cohen
The idea of making friends at work is, when you think about it, deeply weird. You’re essentially being paid to pass hours on end with people you’d never have chosen to see more of than your own loved ones.
We spend anywhere between a quarter and a third of our adult lives at work, sitting beside – or interacting virtually with – our colleagues. They have a major impact on how we do our jobs and how we feel about them. Looking around the office now, I am surrounded by the people who dominate my daily life: co-workers I share tea runs, jokes and cakes with. Women I chat to in the loos. And yet, at any moment, wherever you work, those very people might be going for the same promotion, project or pay rise as you.
Little wonder that many of us are dubious about whether we should attempt to make friends at work. It can be uncomfortable to cross the rubicon from professional to personal. And it’s not, on the surface, the stuff that lasting friendships are made of.
I’ve certainly felt that way, unsure whether to share confidences and trust that they won’t reach the wrong ears. I’ve mistakenly assumed that just because I’m at a similar career stage, or age, to someone, that we would become pals, only to be rejected. I’ve found myself pitted against female colleagues – a victim of that outdated idea that only one woman can climb the ladder – and had to fight the sense of competition, not camaraderie, that settled between us. I moved in with someone I considered a work friend, only to find our bond was more superficial than I had imagined.
It can be a minefield. Yet the evidence suggests that we should be making friends at work and that there are greater benefits to doing so than just helping us get through the days. As Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship puts it: “Not all of us are sure we should be making friends at work. But we’re all happier when we do.”
“Not all of us are sure we should be making friends at work. But we’re all happier when we do.”
According to researcher Tom Rath, in his book Vital Friends, people who have three good work friends are 96 per cent more likely to report being “extremely satisfied” with life. A Gallup survey found that those of us with work friends are seven times more likely to fully engage in our jobs. While a poll by careers website Milkround in 2019 reported that almost half of us rate “practical and emotional support” as the benefit of workplace friendships.
The flipside is that, without work friends, we can feel isolated and unmotivated. In 2018, a Totaljobs poll found that 60 per cent of people felt lonely in work compared to their personal lives, with as many as a quarter having actually quit because of friendlessness.
So many of our fledgling workplace friendships are born out of difficulty, with colleagues bonding over horrible bosses, or the unique pressures of your industry. They can be someone with whom you rant, plot and celebrate – and who can make work feel just a little less like work.
But to take that everyday rubbing-along to the next level can feel daunting. When I was researching my new book on female friendship, several women told me how nervous they had been asking a workmate to meet up at the weekend – would they want to see you for a sixth day in a row? One woman, who was temping in an office, recalled trying to advance a friendship there. “I got on well with one woman but we’d only ever have chats by the watercooler,” she said. “Then one day, I called her in the evening. She said, ‘What is it?’ and I replied, ‘I just called to say hi.’ And she was like ‘But why?’ We laugh about it now because she became one of my closest friends.”
Being deliberate in that way, thinks Shasta, is part of getting serious about work friends. She cites three key elements that all workplace friendships need to thrive: positivity, so friendship makes you feel good and supported; consistency, you put in the time; and vulnerability, you can share who you really are (although, she adds, we “want to be mindful that we’re not using other people just to feel better ourselves”).
“Almost every workplace friend is not someone we would have chosen out of a line-up,” Shasta says. “We chose them because we saw them regularly. We were paid to interact and the consistency happened. And then we bonded with the people we were seeing regularly, who we felt like we got to know and who left us feeling good.”
With work friends, as with our “real life” ones, it’s shared values, emotional trigger points and a sense of humour that help to bind women together. These are the commonalities that, over time, can elevate a colleague-level bond to a friendship one – the qualities around which you’d hope to establish a connection that goes beyond a superficial, “How was your weekend?”
I have made close friends through my job. I’ve been to their weddings and am godparent to their children. But I’ve also had fleeting work friendships with women to whom I was close for a certain period, or specific reason – and that’s OK as long as you both feel the same way about it.
Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett told me about a work friend whom she met at a random networking event and got talking to about her gruelling fertility treatment. “She was the only person I could bear to tell about my IVF at the time, because she didn’t know me,” says Emma. “She’s in my phone as ‘IVF fairy’ because I don’t even know her real name. But she used to send me texts to encourage me during the process.”
Too often, we are still encouraged to compete with one another, particularly in male-dominated environments when it can suit those in power to keep us down.
I love that you can make a work connection and have it play such an important role in a deeply personal part of your life – a friendship that lasts for a moment in time, but which is no less meaningful. It’s something Emma now tries to pass on, offering advice and support to others: “Through that I’ve met some lovely women and stayed in touch,” she adds.
The idea that you should befriend every woman you meet through work is something that could benefit us all, instead of seeing her as a rival. Too often, we are still encouraged to compete with one another, particularly in male-dominated environments when it can suit those in power to keep us down. But just because we can be put in that position by others, it doesn’t mean we don’t also do it to ourselves.
Jealousy is one of the last taboos in female friendship. We’ve all felt it – that little lurch of envy when a pal tells you about her success. If you’ve made a lot of work friends over the years, it can be even tougher as you might share goals in the same industry.
In an episode of my female friendship podcast, author and journalist Daisy Buchanan tells me that she envies the success of a work friend she met while freelancing early in her career. “You’re both on WhatsApp moaning about unpaid invoices – and then suddenly your friend isn’t facing the same struggles,” she says. “[I am] in a constant state of comparing and despairing. I don’t hate her, I’m not angry with her, but I feel nauseous with the shame of not being her.”
So what can help? If you’re the more “successful” friend – aware of having achieved an enviable career goal – it can help to paint a full picture, good and bad, so your work friends know that it’s not Instagram glossy and perfect all the time. While the envious friend should ideally admit how they feel - something Daisy did, and over which her pal was really moved and reacted kindly.
It’s also wise to stop focusing on your work friend and look in the mirror (something none of us likes to do). What do your feelings about their success say about your own ambitions? What’s your next move? Might you even be able to help one another?
It’s when you can form a relationship based on mutual support, reciprocity, honesty and enjoyment that true friendship can blossom. Work isn’t another country – our real lives play out there, too: success, failure, disappointment, joy. And to find someone who makes all that seem better, both professionally and personally, is what you’re aiming for. And friends, believe me, it can work.
BFF? The Truth About Female Friendship by Claire Cohen is out on June 23. Her podcast is called BFF? with Claire Cohen.
The Telegraph, London
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