Friendship at work? Not so much these days

Some observers blame flexitime and virtual work for the growing transactional nature of the American workplace. When more people work remotely, there are fewer chances for face-to-face encounters.
Some observers blame flexitime and virtual work for the growing transactional nature of the American workplace. When more people work remotely, there are fewer chances for face-to-face encounters.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Once, work was a major source of friendships. We took our families to company picnics and invited our colleagues over for dinner. Now, work is a more transactional place. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form bonds. We have plenty of productive conversations but fewer meaningful relationships.

In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 per cent. And in nationally representative surveys of high school seniors in the United States, the proportion who said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends dropped from 54 per cent in 1976 to 48 per cent in 1991, to 41 per cent in 2006.

We may start companies with our friends, but we don't become friends with our co-workers. "We are not only 'bowling alone'," Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, observes, "we are increasingly 'working alone'."

Focusing our friendship efforts outside work is not the norm around the world.

In surveys across three countries, Americans reported inviting 32 per cent of their closest colleagues to their homes, compared with 66 per cent in Poland and 71 per cent in India.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

  • 32%

    Percentage of co-workers US employees report having invited to their homes

  • 66%

    Percentage reported by Polish workers

  • 71%

    Percentage reported by workers in India

Americans have gone on vacation with 6 per cent of their closest co-workers versus 25 per cent in Poland and 45 per cent in India.

It is not that Americans are less concerned with relationships overall. We are social creatures outside work, yet the office interaction norm tends to be polite but impersonal. Some people think pleasantries have no place in professional meetings.

We may be underestimating the impact of workplace friendships on our happiness - and our effectiveness. Jobs are more satisfying when they provide opportunities to form friendships... When friends work together, they're more trusting and committed to one another's success. That means they share more information and spend more time helping.

In a study led by the social psychologist Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Anglo-American, Mexican and Mexican-American participants watched a four-minute video of two people working together.

Shortly after, the Americans generally remembered just as much as the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans about the task, but much less about the social interaction.

Anglo-Americans struggled to remember the socio-emotional aspects, such as smiling, handshaking and discussions about movies and weekend plans.

In other studies, Americans were less likely to notice subtleties in communication when a message was described as having been sent from a manager at a large company than when the same message was supposedly sent from a friend. There was no such discrepancy between the professional and personal among people from China or South Korea.

LESS FACE TIME

Why are Americans so determined to get down to business?

The economic explanation is that long-term employment has essentially vanished: Instead of spending our careers at one organisation, we expect to jump ship every few years.

Since we do not plan to stick around, we do not invest in the same way. We view co-workers as transitory ties, greeting them with arm's-length civility while reserving real camaraderie for outside work. At best, as the movie Fight Club termed our conversation partners on airplanes, colleagues become "single-serving friends".

Some observers blame the rise of flextime and virtual work. When more people are working remotely, we have fewer chances for the face-to-face encounters that are so critical to companionship.

But a comprehensive analysis of 46 studies of over 12,000 employees demonstrated that as long as people were in the office for at least 21/2 days a week, "telecommuting had no generally detrimental effects on the quality of workplace relationships".

This does not rule out the impact of technological advances. When we are constantly connected with old friends on social media - and we can travel to visit them anytime - why bother making new ones?

With 24/7 connectivity, we face a growing time famine, where the pressure to get work done may eclipse the desire to socialise.

But how you react to this time famine might depend on your religion and your sex.

In an experiment, Dr Sanchez-Burks randomly assigned people to dress and act professionally or casually, and then tracked their mimicry of a specific interpersonal cue.

When Protestant men dressed professionally and solved a business case, they mimicked this social cue at half the rate of those who wore Hawaiian garb and generated vacation ideas. The attire and task had no impact on women and non-Protestant men: They caught the cues regardless of what they were wearing and doing.

The sociologist Max Weber classically argued that the Protestant Reformation had a peculiar effect on American work.

At the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther preached that hard work in any occupation was a meaningful duty - a calling from God.

John Calvin took this idea a step further, arguing that people should avoid socialising while working, as attention to relationships and emotions would distract them from productively fulfilling God's will. Over the generations, these Calvinist teachings influenced Protestants, who came to view social considerations as inappropriate and inefficient in the workplace.

Protestant men were especially susceptible, as they were expected and socialised to focus on productivity. For much of the 20th century, US workplaces were largely designed by Protestant men.

Yet in recent years, America has become noticeably less Protestant, dropping from roughly 70 per cent in the 1950s to 57 per cent in 1985, 49 per cent in 2005, and 37 per cent last year, according to Gallup.

The proportion of Protestant chief executives has declined, too. Why, then, does the Protestant ethic persist?

A generational shift has reinforced the transactional mindset in US workplaces, regardless of sex and religion. Although the evidence is strong that different generations generally want similar things out of work, the value placed on leisure time has increased steadily.

BENEFITS OF WORKPLACE FRIENDSHIP

When the psychologist Jean M. Twenge led an analysis of work preference surveys completed by high school seniors in 1976, 1991 and 2006, 17 per cent of baby boomers strongly valued more than two weeks of vacation time, compared with 25 per cent of Generation X and 31 per cent of millennials.

When we see our jobs primarily as a means to leisure, it's easy to convince ourselves that efficiency should reign supreme at work so we have time for friendships outside work. But we may be underestimating the impact of workplace friendships on our happiness - and our effectiveness. Jobs are more satisfying when they provide opportunities to form friendships. Research shows that groups of friends outperform groups of acquaintances in both decision making and effort tasks.

When friends work together, they're more trusting and committed to one another's success. That means they share more information and spend more time helping - and as long as they do not hold back on constructive criticism out of politeness, they make better choices and get more done.

What will make workplaces less transactional? Research suggests that social events are not always effective: People do not mix much at mixers, and at company parties, they mostly bond with similar colleagues.

Technology companies like Google and Facebook provide opportunities for shared games, sports, exercise and meals - and research suggests that playing together and eating together are good ways to foster cooperation.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn has encouraged employees to take their personal lives to work by hosting Bring in Your Parents Day. And at organisations ranging from McKinsey to Chevron, an increasingly popular step is to build alumni networks, as universities do.

As authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh observe in their book The Alliance, alumni networks can encourage employees to invest in relationships even when they won't stay at jobs for decades.

Whether we bond at work is a personal decision, but it may involve less effort and vulnerability than we realise. Professor Jane E. Dutton at the University of Michigan finds that a high-quality connection doesn't require "a deep or intimate relationship".

A single interaction marked by respect, trust and mutual engagement is enough to generate energy for both parties. However small they appear, those moments of connection can transform a transaction into a relationship.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • The writer is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Martin Prosperity Institute fellow.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Friendship at work? Not so much these days'. Print Edition | Subscribe