Two friends at work
Friendships at work are a comfort for sure, yet, it could lead to complicated situations where you might be compelled to choose loyalty over logic. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Misery loves company, but does that apply to office cubicles too?

The office can be a habitat of deadlines, spreadsheets, and... dare we say it... a potential chance for friendships? While bonding over malfunctioning printers, overflowing inboxes and microwaving yesterday’s leftovers, the question remains: Should you become best friends with your coworkers?

Sharanya Chatterjee, a Dubai-based corporate communications professional, seems to think so. "How do you not make friends with people at work?" she asks perplexedly. As she says, you spend around eight hours in office with colleagues, planning events, fighting deadlines and averting disasters together. Inevitably, this translates into tea sessions and lunches at work, where you begin to share little pieces of information about your life. “If you connect with someone, then you make friends anywhere, regardless of whether it’s office or not,” adds Scott Andrews, a British Abu Dhabi-based freelancer.

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The tales of motivational post-its, walks to cheer up a colleague, laughs over snacks, uniting against difficult bosses begin to trickle in. “Some of my best friends have been from work,” says Namya Menon, a Dubai-based media professional. “I had one of the worst experiences at a workplace, owing to toxic bosses and management, but it was my friends at work, who helped me heal,” she says.

Yet, there are others who are wary and believe that work friendships should never be a thing. “I would say from experience, it’s advisable to not get friendly with your co-workers. When things go south, it creates a deeply unpleasant work environment,” recalls Krystoff Mincev (name changed on request), a Russian Dubai-based marketing professional. He has a rather sombre story to share: His close friend from work would keep missing deadlines, making mistakes and Mincev had to keep stepping in to save him, almost jeopardising his own position at work. “Worst is, he expected me to keep helping him because we were good friends. So, after that, I’ve just been careful,” he concludes.

There’s a strong difference between being friendly and actually nourishing a friendship at work, explain workplace wellness experts and psychologists.

‘A rather complex issue’

People fight
The very definition of friendship, involving informality, warmth, reciprocity, collide with the basic features of an organisation. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Typically, there’s always comfort, love and warmth associated with friendships. It’s the soft space that you need in the middle of a hectic day.

Friendships in the workplace can foster psychological safety, compassion, and a healthier office environment, explains Douglas Adams, a British Dubai-based corporate wellness coach and leadership consultant. Lorna Dale, an American Dubai-based workplace wellness mindset coach, adds that these friendships provide emotional support and someone who "has your back" during challenging times. This sense of community, and feeling part of a team, helps to combat isolation, explains Scott Armstrong, founder of mental health advocacy and consultancy platform Mentl. Nourishing such friendships at work can also provide for opportunities of humour and relaxation, which are important to relieve stress.

Having a sense of community and feeling part of a team combats isolation. Nourishing friendships at work can provide opportunities for humour and relaxation, which are important for stress relief...

- Scott Armstrong, founder of mental health advocacy and consultancy platform Mentl.

However, while friendships are an inevitable part of a workplace, as Katherine Law, a British Dubai-based psychologist explains, there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration. “As much as we would like to be friends with everyone, there are various complications and tensions that arise in an organisation that can create quite a few problems for friendships in the workplace,” she says. The very core of friendship, involving informality, warmth, reciprocity, collide with the basic features of an organisation.

Difficult decisions, tricky dynamics

People fighting
At the end of the day, you need to pursue goals for the organisation, perhaps more than relational goals, to achieve required outcomes. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There are situations that can highlight the potential clash between loyalty and logic in work friendships. For example, you are promoted instead of your friend, or vice-versa, or being in the know about your friend’s mistakes and struggling with keeping it a secret from your manager, threatening your own position at the workplace. What if you have to reprimand your friend, too?

Choosing a colleague over a friend for a project based on merit, or covering for a friend's missed deadlines, can also create tension. These situations force you to prioritise organisational goals over personal ties. It becomes more difficult, when you choose your friend as you don’t want to offend them, which could take your organisation in another direction, as Law explains.

As a result, these numerous features of organisational life can clash severely with your friendships. "At the end of the day, you need to pursue goals for the organisation, to achieve required outcomes," she adds.

While friendships have a sense of security around them, too much of it can lead to a chaotic ethos at the workplace. "You might find it difficult to extract yourself from certain dynamics that are distracting," explains Rachel Richardson, a corporate wellness expert. Close friendships can also blur the line between professional and personal life, making clear decision-making difficult. “The boundaries between the professional and personal become barely discernible, and it becomes very challenging to navigate close emotional friendships at work. It’s taxing and exhausting, and irritation, resentment towards your friend starts to build up,” explains Richardson.

Moreover, public displays of close friendships can create a clique mentality, while a fractured friendship can lead to a toxic work environment. Then you make a close friend, it becomes visible to others, says Law. “So, if there are people who are close, and others who aren’t, it generates a high-school clique like feeling. People tend to feel excluded,” she explains. Another flipside is, when a friendship fractures, it is also visible for others to see, and sometimes, this can create a problem in the work ethos and lead to a toxic, hostile or even awkward work environment, she says.

So, is there a way to navigate friendships at the workplace?

You need to set important rules at work to manage your friendships, so that it doesn’t become exhausting for you as well. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes, you can find the most fulfilling friendships in the workplace too. Namita Thakkar, a public relations professional based in Dubai, echoes this sentiment and recalls her own close friendship with a colleague that has spanned over 20 years. “There is a lot of pressure at the job, no doubt. There have been times when while working on projects, we have had some differences of opinions, but we understand where it's coming from and what is the end objective. We never really allowed that to impact our personal equation,” she says. Her friend in question, Ambika Sarvaiya, agrees and believes that their friendship can withstand the difficulties of their work environment, be it present or the future. 

As Armstrong explains, set healthy expectations and boundaries. “You need to be clear in your communication with your friend, before difficult meetings or tasks. Let them know that if you reprimand them about their work, it’s not personal, it’s because that’s what your job entails,” says Richardson. For example: If you have to go up in a meeting against a friend, have an open conversation with them first.

Secondly, set boundaries, which is actually a pre-requisite for all relationships. “You might be close friends with somebody, but set different times to catch up with them, rather than during work. You need to set important rules at work to manage your friendships, so that it doesn’t become exhausting for you as well,” says Richardson. Don’t let personal conflicts overwhelm your dynamic at work: You need to set the record straight from the start with them, too.

Law also emphasises a crucial aspect of work friendships, which involves making friends with someone, who might be senior to you. “You need to be careful about how that appears to others. You should know that all your decisions are under scrutiny, as people are ready to call favouritism. So, learn how to manage those expectations too, with a series of fair structures and processes,” she says.