While lots of us dream of finding the right job - one that gets us excited about going to work each day, challenges us to perform above and beyond and makes us feel valued and respected - a lot of what makes a role wonderful is the co-workers we see each day.
Provided we like them, of course.
Work colleagues can feel like a second family, and they not only provide social and emotional support and friendship and encourage employee engagement in the workplace, they also make your job more enjoyable and increase your creativity and productivity.
A 2014 Relationships@Work study by LinkedIn found that 46 percent of those surveyed felt friendships with colleagues made them happier at work, with one in five (18 percent) remarking that friendships with colleagues also encouraged them to be more competitive when it came to their own careers.
Millennials in particular found workplace relationships to have a positive impact on their lives, with 57 percent saying co-worker friendships made them happy, 50 percent reporting those friendships got them motivated and 39 percent admitting their friendships with work colleagues spurred them to be more productive.
According to Dr. Max Blumberg, psychology researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London (and member of the British Psychological Society), most modern studies typically find that work friendships should be encouraged.
This wasn’t always the case - in the 1980s, friendships were looked down on because they might threaten the organisational structure of the workplace. Today’s more flexible and fluid work environment lends itself to encouraging co-worker friendships more than the more rigid structures in decades past.
A 2002 study published in Public Administration Review which surveyed senior managers on their attitudes toward workplace friendships found that 76.4 percent of those asked approved of friendships between co-workers, and among co-workers and managers.
Yet another study from researchers at the University of Seoul discovered that workplace friendships do play a role in influencing work attitudes, and: “The quality of friendship has a stronger influence on positive work attitudes by employees than friendship opportunity.”
So, how do we learn to love our work colleagues and form friendships that enhance our work and social lives? Here are 10 ways to find common ground with your co-workers.
According to Blumberg, we tend to be attracted to people socially who are similar to ourselves, so the key is to put that to use in a social situation.
Ask questions to determine where there is common ground (where you went to school, what your interests are, where you grew up, etc.). "Any similarity you can find immediately creates an 'us and them' situation - it gives you something to bond over." Of course, you can also do that over the work you're doing, but Blumberg says that's a risky approach because then your friendship is just centred on work topics and little else.
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It can be tempting to form a friendship that focuses on your boss's bad breath and terrible managerial skills, or to bond over the horrors of your workplace. Don't, advises Dr. Blumberg. Keep it positive when initiating the friendship.
And once you've befriended your colleagues, try to not to let all of your neuroses hang out. "Be consistent and predictable," Blumberg suggests. People who are neurotic struggle to maintain friendships because their moods are so up and down, so aim for a place of emotional stability.
It sounds ridiculously simple and obvious, but if you want to break the ice with a colleague, show some interest.
"It is not difficult to start a conversation," explains business communications consultant Carole Spiers
. "Just being interested in another person and asking an open question will usually do the trick. Ask someone 'How are you?' and wait long enough for an answer. People often ask this question and then are halfway down the street when the person starts to talk!" Just taking an interest in someone else goes a long way towards establishing the basis for friendly workplace relations.
This is a concept that esteemed writer and self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, among many others) advocates: spend some time focusing on the other person and find out about their hobbies and interests.
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According to Blumberg, the principle of reciprocity is a key one to remember when befriending a co-worker: if you make the first move and give them something first (a cup of coffee, lunch from the canteen), the other person is likely to want to give back to you. It really works - just think of every marketing campaign you've ever fallen for that started with a freebie.
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The current digiconomy offers plenty of perks for employees: flextime, working from home, digital nomadism and all that other good stuff that lets you put some more focus on life instead of just work. One small issue: it's not very good for helping you build and sustain work relationships if you're out of the office multiple days a week. So, if you want to develop successful work relationships, go and work in the office more.
Blumberg explains that up until the 1980s, the workplace was one of the main places where you'd meet most of your friends (you'd also meet through old friends and family members). Nowadays, social media has changed all of that: Gen Y tend to meet a majority of their friends through social media, online. The result? Person-to-person, real-life friendships are diminishing, as is friendship quality. Research by Robin Dunbar, head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford published in the journal Royal Society Open Science
in 2016 found that focusing too much on online friendships can diminish true friendships, with one survey group stating that they only considered 28% of their Facebook friends to be real friends.
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Another crucial tip when cementing workplace friendships? Don't rush the process - Blumberg says that work scenario friendships take longer to get off the ground than ordinary social ones do. And if you're going to be stuck in the same building as that other person for weeks/months/years, you want to make sure you don't end up in a social situation that you're desperate to extract yourself from.
Blumberg says you should channel psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini's advice when it comes to taking it slow. Some things to remember? Don’t appear desperate. Don’t force it. Let the friendship develop from slow and easy conversation. And be culturally aware - in the UK, it's unusual to invite people for lunch or dinner right off the bat.
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While you employ the same set of social skills to making friends outside of the office as you do within the workplace (finding common interests, etc.), there are a few key differences. In an office environment you need to think about perception much more: is it appropriate for you to try too desperately to ingratiate yourself with the boss or with someone much more junior than you?
One of the key differences between making friends at work versus outside of the office is that work is more structured and formal and you aren’t in charge of your work relationship in the same way you would be with someone outside of work. At work, you don't control whether somebody is your junior or senior, or if they're in a different department, but those factors will play a role in how the friendship plays out.
Sure, you want to put yourself out there to get to know your co-workers. But you don't want to be a nosy snoop who is digging too deep into everybody else's business.
"If there is a sensitive topic then keep away from it, says Spiers. "Not everyone wants to talk about their personal life so be tactful when speaking to the person. If someone closes a door on a conversation, then don't be like a dog with a bone, let it go. You need to respect their privacy."
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Sometimes, we just don't get along with another colleague no matter how much we want to. In those cases, don't confront the issue unless you're forced to, advises Blumberg. He recommends avoiding the situation - letting our flight take over instead of our instinct to fight. If the person pursues you and a confrontation is imminent, take the situation to HR (not their manager directly). Finally, if that fails, then you do need to alert their manager and confront the situation.
Spiers suggests trying to get to know the person by introducing topics outside of work to open them up, like asking how they spent their weekend or offering to help them with their work project before things get heated. Or, ask for their expertise with something and be sure to thank them afterwards.
"If there is a specific topic getting in the way of you connecting with the other person, then maybe suggest a cup of coffee for a chat and a catch-up. Ask: 'I was wondering if you could help me?'" Spiers says.
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You might feel shy, or have a busy social life with friends outside of work (or a demanding family life) that means you can't be bothered to devote the time to getting to know your colleagues. But remember, it's worth the effort that you put in, and can make your entire office experience that much better. Especially if you need a second opinion, some advice on dealing with a client or help with a big report.
"People work well when they are happy and feel that they are part of a community," explains Spiers. "People like to feel valued and recognised and these are the keys to unlocking potential, gaining loyalty and commitment."
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