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Workplace friendships

The Complexities of Workplace Friendships: Balancing Productivity and Well-Being

While the sentiment “I am not here to make friends!” is often expressed in reality television, the debate over whether workplace friendships lead to positive outcomes remains an important consideration for organizations. While research has identified potential drawbacks, there are also compelling arguments for why workplace friendships can be beneficial.

Workplace friendships

The Bad and Ugly of Workplace Friendship

Much of the influential research has concluded that workplace friendships can hurt productivity and task performance. When employees form close bonds, they may be more inclined to make exceptions or concessions for their friends, potentially compromising organisational requirements. For example, workers may be hesitant to address performance issues with friends or may even cover up for one another’s shortcomings.

The professional and ethical conduct of an organisation’s workforce is crucial to its operational integrity. Employees are expected to faithfully execute the duties and responsibilities associated with their formal roles and positions within the organisational hierarchy. However, the development of workplace friendships can sometimes blur the boundaries between professional and personal realms, potentially leading to emotional judgments that may challenge the rationality that is fundamental to the proper functioning of formal institutions.

Workplace friendships can not only contribute to organizational ills, but also impact individual productivity. A 2010 study found that when workers are compensated based on output (piece rate), their productivity can decrease by as much as 10% when they work alongside less productive colleagues who are also their friends.

As the famous sociologist Emile Durkheim postulates, in order to maintain order, each social group creates norms that defined appropriate attitudes and behaviours. Those who violate norms face the risk of sanction. As social animals, we subconsciously alter our behaviour to conform to norms. In this case, working less hard is harmful on both the individual level (less income) and the organisation level (higher operation costs). Conforming to harming group norm is manifested at both the individual level, through diminished income, and the organizational level, through higher operational costs.

Beyond the direct impact on individual productivity, workplace friendships can also undermine between-groups performance. Employees tend to provide preferential treatment to their work friends, a phenomenon known as cronyism. From the perspective of those outside the favoured friend group, this practice is perceived as unfair, a contradiction to the presupposed meritocratic arrangement of work. Cronyism demoralises employees, leading to disengagement, such as paying only minimal effort to work. This causes a decline in overall productivity.

The Good of Workplace Friendship

So, should we conclude that all workplace friendships are bad? Just like many psychology questions, the answer is always ‘It depends’. Research suggests that the relationship between workplace friendships and productivity is more nuanced. In the aforementioned piece-rate research, it also found that when employees work alongside more productive friends, their output can increase by 10%. This indicates that the specific work environment and peer dynamics play a significant role in determining the impact of workplace friendships on productivity.

Moreover, workplace friendships are not unanimously harmful. There is empirical evidence to suggest a ‘net-zero’ impact on productivity. When taking a holistic analysis on the multivarious effects of workplace friendship, its contribution to productivity is offset by its challenges. Conversely, poor relationships with co-workers only have negative outcomes. It would be unwise to oppose workplace friendship.

Instead, the benefits of workplace friendships manifest more in the realm of employee wellbeing. Studies have shown that high-quality friendships with supervisors are associated with positive work attitudes, improved psychological well-being, lower turnover intentions, and higher job satisfaction. Similar effects are also found in friendships between employees.

These factors related to employee well-being can have far-reaching implications for organizational success, influencing factors such as absenteeism, employee retention, and overall cultural health. As such, HR professionals should consider the multifaceted nature of employee well-being, which extends beyond physical health to include organisational culture and task management.

Expivotal, a Hong Kong-based organisational psychology consultancy, has developed a comprehensive employee wellbeing survey that provides organizations with evidence-based insights and interventions to address critical aspects of employee wellness. Interested parties are encouraged to visit Expivotal’s Contact Us page to connect with our experts.

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