What Happened to Work Friends?

The decline of work friendships is an overlooked trend that may be costly to firms as the year unfolds.

Of all the ideas leaders have proposed to increase employee productivity—from returning to the office to refocusing on core priorities to hinting at layoffs for underperformers—one usually doesn’t come up: encouraging friendships.

There’s a growing body of evidence showing that in post-pandemic hybrid-work environments, the quality of relationships among colleagues is deteriorating. One recent poll found that only two in ten workers in the US say they have a best friend at work. Globally, that number is only three in ten. The data on friendships dovetails with the reams of research following the pandemic showing that employees feel more isolated, anxious, and depressed. “There is less opportunity to build workplace friendships today,” says Bill Sebra, global operating executive for the Recruitment Process Outsourcing and Professional Search practices at Korn Ferry. 

Sebra says the absence of work friendships is an important but overlooked trend that could have important financial and talent repercussions for companies as the year unfolds. He says that with corporate revenue growth on the decline and strong economic headwinds expected for at least the first half of the year, the absence of those ties could make the financial environment even more tenuous. 

Many experts say the lack of close ties to colleagues played a role in last year’s so-called Great Resignation. “The hardest part about taking a new job is often the people and friendships that are left behind,” says Tamara Rodman, a senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. Rodman says the bonds coworkers form are the “connective tissue” that propels organizational growth. Without those ties, she says, it’s easier to walk away. The data backs up that view: People who reported not having a best friend at work left their jobs at a higher rate than their peers did during the pandemic. Rodman sees the lack of work friendships as the subtle start of a domino effect in which employees leave jobs that companies are unable to fill, because of the labor shortage. This leads to retention issues among the remaining employees and, eventually, to decreased productivity and financial performance.

For firms, though, the issue of trying to encourage friendship can be delicate. “The friendships have to happen authentically,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice. “Companies can’t overengineer every aspect of their employees’ lives.”

That said, firms can create cultural conditions that foster such bonds, says Maria Amato, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in employee engagement. During the onboarding process, for instance, in addition to appointing a veteran employee to serve as an internal mentor, companies can pair up new hires from different areas of the firm to (as Amato says) “boost each other along the way.” Companies can also expose employees to different parts of the organization by rotating job responsibilities, communicate more in person, and be creative about planning informal time for team members and coworkers to spend together. Amato also advises leaders to conduct a “network analysis” to identify influencers in the organization and tap them to serve as connection points to bring people together. 

She cautions that there is a risk in forcing the friendship issue. “It could quickly become an ‘us versus them’ situation,” she says. “Psychology says the best way to promote bonding is to have a common enemy. You don’t want it to be management.”


For more information, contact the Cultural Transformation practice at Korn Ferry.