3 Ways to Foster Work Friendships to Energize and Reduce Stress

As I prepare to move into my new workspace after four years of working from home, I feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. I love my tranquil home office, with my desk facing a window that overlooks a desert hillside, through which an occasional coyote, bobcat, or javelina passes between the paloverde trees, barrel cactus, and large boulders.

But sometimes, the endless video conferences strain my eyes and drain my energy. Now that our centre’s new building complex is nearing completion, I find myself looking forward to going to work.

We worked closely with the architects through the design process to embed the seven domains of integrative health into the three buildings—the “mind,” “body,” and “spirit” buildings, and balance those with features supporting sustainability and post-COVID requirements.

The buildings, surrounded by carefully laid out desert gardens, with an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible labyrinth and walkways connecting to a neighbouring green space, allow access to nature and spaces for quiet contemplation.

While all its features and amenities are what attract me to leave my home office and venture out into the world, more than anything is the opportunity to be back with my colleagues to share in this adventure together and in person.

When working from home, small problems can loom large, and while video conferencing, e-mail, and phone calls can help solve some of those problems, there is nothing like the sustenance one derives from being together in a common space. It can boost your mood, reduce stress, and make you look forward to the workday rather than sometimes dreading it.

*As anyone who has ever worked in an office environment knows, our workplace relationships can have a huge impact on our performance, our happiness, and even our physical health. Put simply, who we work with matters, and having friends at work can help us through the toughest times. Some surveys estimate that about 125 million people have friends at work—a staggering number.

But friend is a somewhat ambiguous word. What one person thinks is a friendship, the other person may not. In general, a friendship at work is an informal relationship, one that is not part of the organizational structure, such as mentor/mentee, boss/employee, or assigned team member.

A work friendship implies that the people are interested in each other as whole people, not just who they are in their roles as colleagues or in the confines of the work environment. In this sense, some colleagues may become friends and others remain colleagues.

Most people want to have friendly relationships at work for obvious reasons. But friendly is not the same as friendship. And research shows that having actual friendships at work improves our happiness and well-being in a way that having friendly relationships doesn’t.

But there is also a cost to friendships at work. Friendships take time and emotional investment to cultivate, time which may be stolen from the work you are supposed to be doing.

And if you spend an hour of your day chatting with friends instead of working, you may feel you need to stay at the office an extra hour to get that work done—a pattern that can, over time, lead to stress and burnout. So friendships at work need to be balanced in terms of both time and numbers.

The effects of workplace friendships on well-being may be related to individuals’ personalities. An extrovert or more outgoing person is likely to make more friends at work than an introvert and find it less stressful to do so. If one’s job requires a lot of heads-down coding or programming, then the chitchat by the watercooler will likely interfere more with one’s productivity than if the job involves constant interaction, such as sales or customer satisfaction.

This fits with findings in our U.S. General Services Administration Wellbuilt for Wellbeing studies, showing that personality matters, especially concerning the design of the workplace.

One of the greatest lessons employers have learned from the post-pandemic return to work is that such social interactions—the kind that cement the bonds between people working together in teams—are among the most important reasons to maintain the traditional office setting. This speaks to the importance of designing the workplace not only to offer many different kinds of spaces for different-size groups in which to gather but also that those spaces must be welcoming enough to lure people out of their homes and back to the office.

It is not enough for a workplace to be healthy in the sense of not exposing occupants to allergens, toxins, and infectious agents (that’s a necessity); to attract people back to the office, we need more than good ventilation. We need spaces that nourish the soul as well as the body. And it is in those contexts that relationships can morph from colleagues into friends.

In our new Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine buildings, one can meander through desert gardens with a colleague, walk the labyrinth, share recipes, and prepare and share a meal in the spacious staff lounge or teaching kitchen. The immersive virtual reality nature space also fosters relationships, where a couple of people can sit quietly, and experience calming or energizing nature scenes or get up and move to music and moving lights.

In addition to designing our workspaces to maximize the chance of making friends, we need to design our workdays to include time in which to forge friendships. If there are colleagues who have proven to be more supportive than others, find times at the end of the day or the end of the workweek to share news or stories of things going on in other parts of your lives. Even a few moments of conversation that are not centred around work will help you feel more connected and less lonely.

On the other hand, if you relish your aloneness—without feeling lonely—and prefer to keep your private life to yourself, then working from home may provide the perfect shield to keep colleagues as colleagues and not as friends.

One context that will make it more likely for successful teams or collaborations to form is proximity. Think about where you live: you are more likely to get to know your immediate neighbours on either side of your house than neighbours at the other end of your block. The same idea holds in the workplace.

One study showed that office layouts contribute to face-to-face interactions. When employees were able to see others around them (or what’s known as visible co-presence), the number of face-to-face interactions increased.

This supports the notion that open office design, with lots of sight lines to others, increases the likelihood of informal interactions between workers, something now widely recognized as being critically important for creating a strong organizational culture and effective teams. A workplace that is designed to put people with complementary jobs, expertise, and skill sets in close proximity will improve the likelihood of successful collaborations.

When people are together in the same room, a phenomenon occurs that has been called “affect or emotion contagion.” That is, emotions—both positive and negative—can spread from person to person along the lines of physical proximity, the way a virus might.

This is a good thing if the emotions that are spreading are enthusiasm and happiness, but not so good if they are anxiety and stress. If the emotions are positive, they can cause excitement and buzz—the feelings amplify as they spread.

People’s enthusiasm feeds off one another’s like in a tennis match, with ideas flying about the room fast and furious. It is very hard, if not impossible, to recreate this kind of buzz when everyone is remote and sitting alone in their homes.

It is that buzz of enthusiasm and my work friendships that I now crave as I prepare to head back to our new common workspace—a buzz that boosts my energy and the sustenance of friends that reduces my stress.

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