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Friends with office benefits

Anjaly Thomas
Filed on September 4, 2021
Reuters

Many of us spend more time with colleagues than we do with family, but how do meaningful relationships formed at the workplace evolve in competitive and (often) short-lived environments?


It all started with William Gladstone, whose term as UK Prime Minister between 1868-94 birthed the now famous term “office wife” (reportedly — if one goes by Philip Whitwell Wilson’s 1933 piece for The New York Times). The relationship Gladstone referred to probably had more to do with the “understanding” between a politician and his secretary, but along came Faith Baldwin with her 1929 book The Office Wife and sensationalised the term.

That term, of course, underwent several changes and faced severe criticism before slowly settling into a modern-age lingo stable that made it all acceptable. One avatar has been the term ‘work besties’, that covers pretty much every extrapolation — from work-husband and work-wife to work-spouse. Personally, I find the last three terms tacky, even absurd, so I’ll stick to office or workplace bestie and be politically correct.

Years ago, truth be told, an office/work bestie sometimes was my only reason to go to work — but that is another story. Currently, I do not have a colleague I can call a friend (since I’m, technically, not working) but, like most of you, I have been there and enjoyed the bonding we shared. In time, we went our different ways, but my two best friends from work are still the only ones I hang out with. Today, I value the concept of workplace friendships better, especially when I am keen to share a viewpoint or vent — and there is no one handy.

That said, having a friend at the workplace is a common occurrence, considering that we end up spending more time with them than at home, discussing challenges and upheavals far more openly than with our spouse or families. For a number of reasons, everyday challenges are easier to handle or discuss with a work-friend. For example, I always found it easier to discuss the plot of a fantasy fiction with my work-friends than with, say, my brother. Or partner.

Gallup, a US-based analytics and advisory firm, poses this question in their employee engagement survey: “Do you have a best friend at work?” The question aims to demonstrate the link between engagement and positive business results: people who have a friend at work tend to be more engaged compared to those who do not.

Fostering comradeship

It is common for colleagues to become friends for the simple reason that underneath whatever garb we wear, we are human beings who desire trust, bond, empathy and recognition, says Vasana Dias, a Dubai-based organisation development consultant. Social ethic is fundamental to an organisation that fosters teams, collaborations and an engaged culture which opens doors for people to get to know each other a little beyond the usual work parameters, she explains.

“Workplace is where you encounter real life: it’s a place where you earn trust, respect, set great impressions, learn that failure is the greatest teacher and tenacity is the key to success. In that journey of learning, it is important to have a friend [or friends] who can help you navigate the challenging times, to celebrate wins as a team, and to be heard when life undergoes professional and personal transformation and growth.”

Dias gives the example of the unlikely bond between former US presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton. Their political rivalry turned to friendship and is said to be a classic example of friendship that thrived during and after the elections simply because of mutual respect and trust.

“Friendships foster a feeling of trust, respect and inclusion that reinforces high levels of motivation and team performance,” she says. “I was heading to work one day for a crucial meeting, and, on the way, I had a flat tyre, and my instant reaction was to call my best friend at work. She immediately agreed to cover the first two meetings for me,” Dias says, adding that one of her greatest friendships started at her first workplace, “we were from different continents, worked together for a short time and yet today, 22 years later, I am happy that the friendship has developed into a sense of ‘comradeship’ that is fulfilling.”

Shared common goals

Gregory Fantham, assistant professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, says workplace friendships are inevitable. “The reasons are obvious: you have shared work goals and challenges, you commiserate about work together… they pitch in when times are tough and can be a sounding board for professional decisions,” he elaborates. “It’s important to appreciate that your co-workers can become good friends, perhaps, but not necessarily best friends because the work setting tends to frame and distort relationships whether you like it or not. With good friends, you can let off some steam but with best friends you must be able to let off all of it.” He believes having a ‘work bestie’ helps both personally and professionally; while it helps establish a support system and improve mental health, it also boosts job satisfaction and reduces stress.

“Research indicates that workers who have a workplace bestie can boost their productivity and experience an increased performance level, likely linked to feeling more energised at work,” he explains. Gregory believes that friendships continue even after people leave an organisation; in fact, in many cases friendships flourish because it’s possible to maintain a more open friendship as workplace constraints are absent.

Avoiding toxicity at workplace

Deepa Sud, CEO of Plum Jobs, says, “Regardless of our environment, we all need genuine human relationships to stay balanced, strong and happy.” According to her, making friends is the natural inevitability at the workplace; some of them become a very important part of our lives. It also makes workplace a fun place to be, thereby adding to individual productivity.

However, there is a flip side to it. Like all relationships, it is essential to balance friendships at work. “Social interaction with friends can become a distraction when not managed and unfairly leveraging a relationship can derail a department. Striking a balance between friendship and professionalism is critical to avoid toxicity in the workplace, so leaders and HR professionals need to manage the dynamics,” she explains.

Deepa believes that workplace friendships boost productivity because people are not afraid to ask for help, they are more engaged and are willing to support each other. But it’s not always rosy. “With our work and personal life boundaries getting blurred, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to differentiate between these parameters. For many, the dilemma is whether to keep their personal and professional lives separate or purposefully cultivate friendships in the workplace.”

She warns about the danger of being “over friendly” which leads to over sharing details of personal lives which often comes back to bite you, especially when it’s related to finance, material possessions and aspirations. “There is always competition at the workplace, and this can lead to jealousy and back-stabbing.”

Alienation can be devastating

Deputy content director of Radio Asia, Sindhu Biju believes that there is fluidity in every relationship, particularly in workplace relationships — so these change constantly. These relationships must be discussed and renegotiated to avoid conflicts and to maintain a friendly environment.

“In the media industry, we look upon our colleagues as family, considering that we spend long hours with them, are constantly thrown together, by choice or circumstances. It is easy to bond.” However, leaving a workplace would make one feel very alienated. “You might have heavily invested in this friendship, and suddenly your whole investment has vanished. This may even land you in depression. It is not easy to form the same bond in a new workplace nor are you able to continue the former friendship with the same intensity. So, while it is important to have work-friends, one must also set a limit.”

She recalls her personal experience from her former workplace — when Covid redundancies affected her job. “You may expect your ‘friends’ to stand up for you or be there for you emotionally, but that may not happen. The reality is that, over time, even the strongest connect will disintegrate. Maintaining a steady relationship also requires integrity… else everything is going to crumble sooner or later.”

She is all for being friendly to her colleagues but owing to her past experience, she will be careful in future. She believes it’s always better to ‘be friendly’ than ‘being too close’.

Encouraging friendships@work

Omani national Zakiya Dhiyab Hamed Al Zakwani, founder of Zproyecto Boutique, has been her own boss but maintains that she, her clients and her staff are friends. She encourages friendships amongst her staff, as that helps create a better working environment. “As friends, they support each other and understand [each other] better. After all, at the end of the day, we all want to be understood. That aside, during a crisis, staff members willingly cover each other’s shift rather than feeling forced into it. Being friends is like ‘watching out for each other’ — which is most essential.”

For her, friendship is a very personal thing. “Even if one of my staff members leave — be it for marriage, studies or a new job — I always try to maintain that bond… after all, that is what being friends is all about, right?”

Sourcing specialist and car enthusiast at Car City LLC, Dubai Sameer Ansari says, “Workplace is our second home and it allows one to build a friendship on mutual interests. People with close friends at work are twice as engaged as those without, so workplace bonding is really a win for everyone.” Sameer admits to maintaining friendships over the years, despite distances, particularly with his former accounts head (now a chartered accountant), which he says has proven crucial to individual growth. “She lives in Dubai too, so we make it a point to meet up occasionally. Together, we have witnessed an amazing workplace experience, seen our personal lives take shape and still stay strong to support each other in our good and hard times.”

He explains that distance or a change of company doesn’t matter so much if the relationship you’ve built is based on trust and respect. “For me, a friend is a friend for life… no matter where we are placed globally, we still stay connected, somehow.”

The long and short of it…

My workplaces have often given me friends who understand what issues/worries I am going through and are probably facing similar ones. Workplace friendships have been the subject of discussion for years but is more relevant in today’s digital era where apps and virtual friends replace real ones. However, statistics indicate that, overall, 65 per cent of [working] people report having a work-bestie, which is a positive sign.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be friends with their coworkers, especially in a highly competitive work environment. There is that underlying fear of using the slightest tidbit of information to their advantage; so, personally, when I had the opportunity, I preferred to grab a coffee and discuss weather but not invite them for family events or barbecue and discuss the boss. Let my dark secrets die with me, I say.

I may not have an office environment to bank on currently, but if you’ve been lucky enough to have one, you know what a difference it can make when you suddenly find yourself far away focusing on your life as a digital nomad. In isolation.

Do I miss the discussions of politics or sports by the watercoolers? Maybe. But what I miss most are the quick pick-me-up conversations that made life easier to navigate. Those conversations deepened the friendship which continues to this day and especially shines through when chewing roast chicken to the sound of music.

On that note, it is time for our weekly catch up…

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly)





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