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Employee Engagement and Friendship: Why you need a best friend at work

Business magnate Henry Ford may have captured how powerful friendship can be in the workplace when he said: “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” But can that special relationship be a key to employee engagement and productivity? Research seems to point that way, with Gallup finding a link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees put in.

Friendship at work accurately predicts productivity

Do you have a best friend at work? This seemingly simple question once caused quite a bit of controversy at Gallup. The question is included in the Q12, and is one of twelve survey items that are thought to be the best indicators of employee engagement. Although openly admitting that the question was controversial among Gallup senior executives, Donald Clifton, the former educational psychologist who founded Gallup and developed the Q12 survey, insisted on measuring workplace friendships for good reason: it’s one of the strongest predictors of productivity. Studies show that employees with a best friend at work tend to be more focused, more passionate, and more loyal to their organizations. They get sick less often, suffer fewer accidents, and change jobs less frequently. Fewer safety incidents, more engaged customers and a boost in profits are also among the benefits when employees have a work best friend. Conversely, in their book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter found only five percent of the workforce strongly agreed their workplace is conducive for building stronger personal relationships. This is important for businesses as 91 percent of employees who did not socialize in the workplace were found to lack engagement in their work.

Higher overall happiness

A Relationships @ Work study by LinkedIn found that 46% of work professionals worldwide believe that work friends are important to their overall happiness. In the US, according to Forbes, survey responses show that a positive work culture is becoming increasingly important to employees, which is no surprise considering Millennials are the largest portion of the US labor force.

Increased Employee Retention

Workplace friendships also benefit organizations for another reason: employees with better friendships tend to stay on with their company for longer periods of time. In today’s world, loyalty to an organization has become an antiquated concept, one that rarely determines people’s career decisions. But when our coworkers are our friends, it suddenly becomes harder to leave. Often it’s our loyalty to our colleagues that keeps us from accepting a tempting offer with another company.

Friends are better than acquaintances

Why would friends be better at working together than just acquaintances? A joint study by management professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota offers a clue. Researchers began by asking students in a large course to identify classmates with whom they have a “close interpersonal relationship.” They then used that information to assign students to small groups made up of either close friends or mutual acquaintances. What the researchers wanted to know was this: could pre-existing friendships benefit some activities but interfere with others? The results were definitive: friends outperformed acquaintances on both tasks. The reason? Friends were more committed at the start of a project, showed better communication while doing the activity, and offered teammates positive encouragement every step of the way. They also evaluated ideas more critically and gave one another feedback when they were off course.

Up to seven times more engaged

It comes down to trust and bonding, says Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile. “People are more creative and productive when they experience more positive inner work life, including more positive emotions, stronger motivation toward the work itself and more positive perceptions of the organisation,” says Professor Amabile, who co-authored The Progress Principle after analysing 12,000 daily diary reports from 239 professionals working in innovation teams.

“And one of the things that contributes to positive inner work life is a sense of camaraderie with teammates and close co-workers – a sense of bonding and mutual trust.” And that camaraderie can pay dividends as employees with a best friend at work are up to seven times as engaged as those without, according to Gallup.

Higher levels of customer service

Employee engagement that develops friendships is an approach that has worked for businesses leading the latest Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For report, including the top two firms, Chess ICT and MVF Global.

At Chess ICT, work friendships are seen as crucial to meeting business objectives. “Friendships and what we term ‘work family’ are a massive part of what we are trying to achieve,” says Chess head of culture Kate Wood. “People who are happier are more engaged and will give a better service to customers.”

Teams have a daily ‘huddle’, with remote workers joining by Skype, while social activities such as yoga and well-being classes, pub clubs and company-funded ideas lunches are a chance to forge work friendships.

“Having close relationships in which people care and trust each other enables them to work better and have that sense of team, which leads to getting things done in a more productive way,” says Ms Wood.

Highly engaged employees make for a strong company culture

Marketing business MVF Global’s chief people officer Andrea Pattico explains: “Our business is fast paced and dynamic, which involves collaboration and communication. We find fostering a social workplace is critical to being able to achieve our goals.” The firm was founded by five friends in 2009, and has grown to more than 350 employees.

“We spend the majority of our time at work, so why not be in the company of people you’d be happy to call a friend?” says Ms Pattico. “Happy teams are productive teams and social interaction is a huge part of this.”

However, fostering valuable work friendships isn’t as simple as setting up fun activities. It must be part of a wider employee engagement strategy and strong company culture that values employees, provides development opportunities and challenging work enabling everyone to perform to their best.

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