Office friends: Who needs them?

Unlike the personal kind, workplace relationships are full of ambiguities, says Mark Vernon.

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 19 Jul 2016

Do friendships and work mix? The answer, surely, must be yes, or else the office would be a desperate place indeed. And yet, while everyone wants to gossip with colleagues some of the time, enjoy the camaraderie of the office much of the time and feel they belong to the team all the time, the friendship on which such a pleasant work environment rests can be a fragile thing.

The trouble is that friendships at work are full of ambiguities. Consider this: you have worked with someone for some time, perhaps several years.

You have spent all hours of the day with them - five days a week - sharing jokes, worries and triumphs. In short, you like them and even consider yourself quite intimate with them. And then they get a new job. One month later, they are leaving - and a strange thing happens. You barely miss them. Within a couple of days of their departure - maybe even a couple of hours - you hardly mind (if you're honest). One might reasonably ask whether such a friendship was ever worth the name.

Or consider this: you're in the supermarket at the weekend and unexpectedly spot the person who sits opposite you in the office at the end of the aisle. Why do you grab your trolley and, in a swift but seemly manner, head in the opposite direction?

Or again: you're at the theatre or cinema, making your way into the auditorium, when you bump into a colleague - and it is embarrassing. This is someone you see at least once a week, and now, outside work, you are not sure how to greet them. As you take your seat, you ponder: should it have been a nod, a smile, a handshake or perhaps even a (chaste) kiss?

There are other examples of the ambiguities of friendship at work: the petty irritants that blow up out of all proportion; the friendship you proffer when really you loathe the guy's guts; the managers you have to be friendly with because they conduct your appraisal and influence your pay packet. And these all raise the same question: why are professional friendships so perilous?

Philosophy provides one very good answer. Aristotle noticed these same things as he wandered the workplaces of ancient Greece and Macedonia 2,500 years ago. And, being Greek, he had a word for it: utility.

Your utility is your usefulness. And the trouble with work (for friendships, at least) is that you are there to be useful. You are there to do something - for a client, for a team, for a boss. Moreover, the utility relationship is two-way. You are at work because it does something for you. You hope that this will include rewards such as providing satisfaction, but at the end of the day, work is not work without one key utility for the employee: the pay cheque.

What this means for professional friendships is that they are based mostly on what is done together. Stripping these relationships of their utility takes away their raison d'etre. This is what happens when people leave: like a flower cut, a friendship withers. It is not that they were not liked or had nothing in common with you; it is that the thing held in common - work - is gone, and without that the relationship ceases to have reason or purpose.

Similarly, outside of work, people find it hard to know how to relate to one another and revert to talk about work. They become awkward because the framework within which they usually conduct the relationship is absent.

Even if your relationships at work include a drink at the end of the day, or even if they can cope with a casual encounter at the weekend, there will be limits to what they can sustain.

This is why team-building awaydays are so dreaded. The fear is that they overstep the mark by putting people together as if they were non-work friends. Such events are often saved only by the identification of a common enemy - the facilitator or boss - who, as the recipient of mutual animosity, creates the illusion of friendship in the group.

Another reason why these utility friendships can be so flaky is that people are not necessarily friends because of who they are in themselves.

Deeper friendships - with best friends, partners, soulmates and the like - are based on loving someone not for what they do but for what they are.

Thus, Aristotle summed up the difficulty facing professional friendships in this way: 'Those who are friendly with each other because they are useful to each other do not like each other for the person each one is in themselves. They like each other only insofar as it does them some good. They are friendly because it is beneficial to be so.'

The vital point is to recognise such relationships for what they are, so that they do not become stretched to breaking point. Professional friendships will always be influenced, and possibly determined, by the utility factor.

However, it does not stop there. Aristotle also realised that while what lies underneath the ambiguity of work friendships may be readily identified in theory, it is not always easy to discern in practice.

One problem is that utility friendships can often look and feel like deeper friendships.

Office camaraderie can be genuinely felt and meant. After all, don't some people organise their working day around the gossip over the photocopier or the regular exchange of jokey e-mails? And the solidarity that disgruntled colleagues may find in each other can be profound; they may feel they are true confidants. Nevertheless, the utility principle holds. These things may humanise the workplace, but take the workplace away and the friendships will flounder.

Another problem is that work friendships are subject to factors beyond the individual's control. The things that underlie the friendship can change rapidly and in quite arbitrary ways. It may take only an office reorganisation, which means you don't see the other person very much any more, to kill a friendship that has not taken root in other ways.

A more destructive issue arises when professional friends do not get the same thing out of the relationship. For example, the workplace can be very competitive - perhaps in the pursuit of promotion or a sense of achievement, or simply getting on with the work in hand. In these circumstances, friends readily come to feel used. And although usefulness is always a part of friendship (best friends will often ask each other to do things for them), feeling used is almost invariably terminal.

This raises another tricky circumstance: when professional friendships go wrong. It is said that there is nothing like a lover scorned. Well, a colleague who feels betrayed may be almost as vindictive. The innuendo and backbiting can hang around like a persistent bad smell, and may even threaten a career. It's for this reason that sociologists report that colleagues often pretend to remain friends with others even when they secretly despise them; they'd rather do that than risk animosity. Similarly, self-help books routinely advise avoiding friendships at work and letting no-one become more than an amicable acquaintance.

The good news is that Aristotle did not agree with this counsel. He preferred honesty to avoidance. Know yourself and the nature of your friendships, and enjoy them for what they are. After all, a common project is an excellent way of bringing people together. On occasion, a utility friendship may even move on from being based on 'the doing' to 'the being'.

Moreover, in today's world, work is one of the best sources of friends - as well as one of the most desirable places to have one. Perhaps when genuine good feeling rises above mere benefit and an admiration for character over professional achievement, a virtuous spiral of regard can blossom into a wonderful and robust friendship.

MANAGE YOUR OFFICE FRIENDSHIPS

Ask yourself: would we be friends if it weren't for the work we are doing together?

If the answer is no, recognise the limitations of the friendship for what it is.

If the answer is yes, be glad, but remember: the desire for friendship comes quickly; friendship itself does not.

If the answer is not sure, be careful: office camaraderie or solidarity are not the same as deeper friendship.

For a deeper friendship with someone at work, get to know them better away from work.

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