Thank you for being a friend

Having friends at work not only makes work fun, but it also helps lower stress, improve work outcomes, and boost our well-being. Here are four strategies to foster connections with colleagues.

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

Anya Weaver

Associate Principal, Leadership & Professional Development, Korn Ferry

Jen Fahrmann

Training Program Manager

They celebrate us when we land our big promotion. Support us when we work on challenging projects. Hold us accountable when we make honest mistakes. Lend an ear when we have a bad day.

For many people in their professional journey, their favorite place to work is often defined by where they forge meaningful friendships. We find ourselves smiling unexpectedly, even laughing as we reflect upon shared work experiences. And it’s these friends we find that can make going to work fun—and sometimes, hard to leave. Hearing about individual experiences, as well as research about the innate human drive to connect with others, reinforces how vital it is to cultivate friendships at work.

Work friendships emerge differently for different people. They can form organically while working on a team, when we learn details about each other’s lives as we collaborate, provide feedback, and offer accountability. Or they can grow after we are paired on a project with a colleague we’ve never met, the friendship building with every Zoom meeting we host. Or we may feel an instant bond with a new coworker—so much so, it’s like we’ve known them our entire lives.

However a friendship may form, it can enhance our performance, our impact, and our wellbeing. Research shows that organizations where an employee has supportive coworker relationships have better customer satisfaction, fewer safety incidents, and overall higher profit margins. This is likely because people are more likely to speak up, have more candid conversations, and are less likely to second guess each other when they have colleagues that they consider friends. This may be, in part, because friends make us feel safe.

Friendship, in fact, is an evolved trait. Humans began living in groups as a mechanism to support cooperative behaviors like hunting and grooming. Today, friendships with others are a kind of cooperative behavior that offers the support critical to navigating the competitive world. But friendship also has additional benefits that we see below the surface. For example, humans release more endorphins and more oxytocin when we interact with friends—both neurotransmitters involved in reward processing in the brain. In other words, interacting with friends feels rewarding.

Increases in both hormones also boost feelings of friendship and affiliation. Think of a time when a colleague welcomed you with an inviting smile that made you feel comfortable and wanted in the room. Or the teammate who asked questions to confirm if you had all the resources you needed to set you and your client up for success. These types of experiences at work help us build trust and rapport with our peers and open us up to learning more about each on a more personal level.

What’s more, friendships can decrease stress responses in our brains and our bodies. In fact, studies show that, while experiencing something unpleasant, we release less of the stress hormone cortisol when we have a friend around compared to when we are alone. In short, friendship is something that helps us cope with a difficult world and makes our experience of it more positive.

Admittedly, making friends at work can be tricky, and not all friendships happen quickly or easily. But, no matter how they’ve come to be, friendships are a powerful thing. And with the benefits of having work friends being so evident, we have to ask: how can we be more thoughtful and deliberate about forming friendships at work? Here are four strategies to consider:

  1. Be intentional. Create a plan to meet with people weekly or monthly to build your network of colleagues whom you become familiar with. The more people you know, the more you become comfortable with. This will increase the probability of deepening rapport and establishing trust. We call this the Familiarity, Comfort, and Trust (FCT) method.
  2. Be receptive. Science shows humans are naturally drawn to others who share similarities. But while connecting over similarities is a great way to build bonds, it is equally important to lean into learning more about differences. When someone approaches you to meet, make yourself available. You never know where the conversation may lead (like other connections, the discovery of shared interests, new opportunities).
  3. Be bold. Stepping out of your comfort zone can help you build meaningful connections with your coworkers and make lasting friends at work. So, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to colleagues or strike up casual conversations during lunch breaks or at social events. Or, if you’re less of a social butterfly, actively listen to your peers and ask questions that show genuine interest in their work and personal lives.  
  4. Be open. Vulnerability is underrated in the workplace. Lean into courage and be willing to admit when you need help or make mistakes. When appropriate, share stories of personal experience to help someone else work through challenges or feel supported. Vulnerability is a non-intimidating strength that can open the door for friendships to form.

For more information, learn about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) capabilities.