Workplace Relationships – How to Make Them or Break Them

When I sat down to write this article about workplace relationships and friendships, my mind wandered to a wildly different, yet not-too-distant time. I recalled the time a work friend and I were both in San Francisco for our massive company conference in 2019. We were both there working full days of shifts for our respective teams – each with different goals to engage with our customers. And the evenings were filled with happy hours and team/client dinners. If you were crafty enough, you could even sneak in a quick catch up with work friends.

I rushed from one late afternoon working session to a hip, minimalistic restaurant I was able to snag a reservation at, having planned in advance. We sat down face-to-face for about 40 minutes – speedily sipping a glass of wine and barely gobbling down an appetizer (we both love savoring tasty food and exploring when we travel so that says something about our friendship that the food was an afterthought)– we didn’t want to sacrifice a minute of conversation and desperately catching up between each bite.

Work Friends are Worth the Rushed Glass of Wine

We scribbled our signatures on the check and went on our way to our next planned event. Mine was meeting a colleague whose team I had interviewed for previously (the opportunity wasn’t a fit), but we set a time to meet up when in town for the conference. Little did I know it was the start of a new work friendship. I was so grateful she used one of her valuable evening time slots to meet me –someone she didn’t know very well – but we had several things in common including our hometowns, the previous interview experience, we saw potential to help each other out and work together in the future.

It also occurred to me that maybe she needed a reprieve from the obligatory team activities and welcomed the idea of sitting down with someone new in the hotel lobby. I certainly did. She ended up coming to work for my team several months later and this new work friendship has created a space for us to connect on both personal and professional topics since that first night we met.

Work Friends Lean on Each Other in Times of Need

Fast-forward to primarily virtual work life during a pandemic, where conferences and squeezed-in wine catch ups are a temporary (hopefully) luxury of the past. I received an email from a former teammate that she was looking for a sounding board and some ideas about a work struggle taking place. While I was home visiting family, I took an afternoon walk while talking with her on the phone, listening to understand what she was going through, then providing advice from a similar experience I went through at work. I felt I was able to give helpful advice because I had worked with her previously, developed a friendship over the years, and I knew her work ethic and what’s important to her. She felt like she had some new direction, or at least some ideas of next steps at the end of our call.

Work Friends and the Recurring 1-on-1

Just a few weeks ago, I dialed into a recurring 1:1 meeting with a colleague whom I worked with closely every day on the same large project for about a year. During that time, we were essentially partners, bringing our complementary skill sets to the project. While working together day after day, it was only natural that a friendship would emerge. In between meetings or on Google Chat or video calls, we’d talk about cities we’d lived in and intended to move to, sharing travel and restaurant recommendations, life milestones like weddings and growing our families. In fact, when my husband and I moved to Denver, he sent gift cards and “complimentary apps or dessert” cards from some of his favorite restaurants from when he had lived there. I coordinated a team gift of personalized books all about racecars (one of his interests) when his son was born.

Now, we keep a regular meeting on the calendar to catch up on our respective roles and teams, and life. Just minutes before I called in, he had received news that he wouldn’t be moving forward in interviews for a role he was pursuing. He told me the news and took some time to process what happened. I gave him reassurance that this was an opportunity to reevaluate what he really wanted and to use the time to prepare even more for the next interview. He asked for an update on my latest work projects too. It was a safe space to openly share work experiences without judgement, and with support and friendship instead.

Work friendships are Simply Friendships

What do all four of these work friendships have in common? In person or not, pandemic or not, work friendships happen when:

  • There’s always time. We make time no matter our work deadlines or other distractions to connect on a personal level.
  • They transcend business into human interactions. They cross the boundaries of work details we all get bogged down by and venture into human challenges, opportunities, and experiences.
  • They’re grounded in common or shared experiences (customer challenges, organizational changes, team dynamics, moving cities, not getting the job, life milestones), interests, and skill sets. This laid a foundation for friendship – we weren’t starting from ground zero.

You might call this last one “commonality”, or shared interests, also the focus of step 4 in my 5-step method for building high quality career relationships, The Knock Method. Commonality is one of the best ways to transition a business relationship into a human one because it’s centered around shared interest and personal experiences rather than business goals. Other steps in the method include other-centeredness, focusing on the other person and bringing them value, as well as expressing gratitude and practicing generosity. Get my new book, KNOCK: How to Open Doors and Build Career Relationships that Matter, to gain simple strategies and easy-to-use tools for deepening career relationships to unlock workplace relationships.

High Quality Career Connections are Good For Your Health

Work friendships are simply friendships. Work brought us together, but we support each other during life’s twists and turns, all taking place while we’re showing up to work. They make business more human.

And, as it turns out, these work friendships, or high quality career connections, are proven to boost our physical and mental health (Source: Jane Dutton & Emily Heaphy). When we don’t feel connected to the people around us, including in our careers – our colleagues, managers, mentors, customers – we feel isolated and lonely. And loneliness leads to severe health risks because it causes stress and disconnection from community and purpose.

Workplace relationships can take many forms – with your manager, colleagues, teammates, customers, prospects, startup partners and investors, or even your mentor. And these relationships don’t have to be strictly business – the ones that are authentic, personal, create a safe space to share emotions, challenges, and celebrate achievements – are the ones that create mutual value and enrich your life.

So, next time, you wonder if you can bear one more Zoom meeting to catch up with a work friend, relax, take a deep breath, and know you will feel happier, and healthier because you prioritized this friendship during a time when we all need it even more than we did when were happy-hour hopped not too long ago. Cheers to work friends, to good health, and to in-person work friendships! Comment below to give a shout out to your best work friends!

This guest post was authored by Rebecca Otis Leder

Rebecca is a marketing manager at Salesforce, and author of Knock: How to Open Doors and Build Career Relationships That Matter. The book introduces “The Knock Method,” an actionable plan to develop high-quality, mutually beneficial career relationships that don’t just lead to jobs, but strengthen our collective power to drive change.

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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