In Defense of Work Friendships
Even before I entered the professional world, and certainly ever since, I've been warned against counting co-workers among my friends. The dangers of having colleagues as friends, as I understand it, are that the moment you get too comfortable with your work friends, you'll reveal something that they'll later leverage against you, or that eventually one of you will be promoted and the new power dynamics will tear the relationship to shreds. While that may be some people's experience, I've come to realize that, far from being a hindrance, forging and maintaining workplace friendships in higher education can be a profound asset, enriching both your professional journey and your personal life. As someone who's been cautioned about this very issue, I'd like to debunk some of these myths and emphasize the numerous benefits that stem from cultivating genuine connections with your colleagues.
As anyone who's tried explaining the dynamics of a particularly acrimonious committee meeting to a friend who works in the corporate world knows, sometimes people outside the world of higher education don't always "get it." Merideth Stroh, who previously worked in Northeastern's Office of Global Services and now works as an Operations Manager at ARDC, notes that "You form a unique bond navigating the workplace together; your work friends understand you in a way others can't." Shared challenges can create a sense of camaraderie among colleagues, and your workplace friendships can serve as a safety net, a source of encouragement, or a collective shoulder to lean on during the tough times. Work friends, Stroh goes on to note, can provide you with background information and institutional knowledge that may illuminate current dynamics in your workplace: "Work friends are important because they can tell you insider information, from the best coffee shops on campus to why the budget was cut in 2016… having work friends makes me feel more confident in the workplace." Aside from sharing mutual challenges and sharing information, work friendships also offer a foundation upon which to build collaborations. According to a 2022 report from Gallup, people who have a best friend at work are more engaged than those who do not: when you have friends in the workplace, you're more likely to engage in open and constructive discussions, sharing innovative ideas that can propel your work forward. As a bonus, in addition to being more likely to innovate and share ideas, people with a best friend at work get more work done in less time and report having more fun.
Outside of work, these relationships also enrich your personal life, as you socialize beyond the confines of your workplace commitments. Sima Kalmens, a senior HR & faculty affairs associate at Northeastern University's College of Science, shares that one of the best parts of forging work friendships is that "they come from walks of life or generations to which you may have less exposure to outside of the workplace. They help you see different points of view and enrich your general view of the world… two of my closest work friends are in their fifties, which probably wouldn't have happened outside of work." Having friends in the workplace can not only boost job satisfaction and performance, but also improve wellness: according to a variety of studies, strong relationships at work are linked to a lower risk of burnout, better mental health, fewer traumatic experiences, and maybe even a longer lifespan.
The benefits of work friendships even extend past the time when you're colleagues: mentorship plays a pivotal role in career development, and your workplace friends can often become your mentors. Kristina Schinder, assistant co-op coordinator at Northeastern University, says that "work friends become part of your professional network and can be a source of guidance and/or future opportunities." The idea that workplace friendships inevitably lead to power struggles and broken relationships upon promotions is a misconception: in fact, friends who genuinely care about your success will celebrate your achievements and support your professional growth, even if it means a shift in dynamics.
So, should we heed the warnings against forming friendships with our colleagues? No. While not all of your colleagues may be suitable friends, avoiding it at all costs can be a mistake. Workplace friendships in higher education can offer a multitude of benefits, including mutual support, opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and a healthier work-life balance. These connections can become your trusted allies in navigating higher education. Don't let misconceptions deter you from forging valuable connections with the right people.