Having a good friend at work you can confide in and commiserate with can be a blessing during these hard times. Research has found that it can even fuel greater job satisfaction: In a survey of more than 195,600 employees in the U.S., Gallup found that 20% of them said they had a best friend at work. This was also the group that reported being most engaged and committed to their jobs.
Does this mean you’re in trouble if you don’t have any friends at work? If you are feeling anxiety and shame over being professionally friendless, recognize that a lot of people feel the same way.
It’s hard, period, to make friends as an adult, let alone at your job. And just because you spend over 2,000 hours a year in close proximity with your co-workers doesn’t mean that you will automatically become friends with them.
“When you consider what small portion of the population is going to be in the office with you, the assumption you are going to like these people enough to be friends with them seems a lot to ask, actually,” said Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist. “The pressure to create these deep, fulfilling, meaningful relationships all the time everywhere you go is way too much pressure to put on yourself.”
During a pandemic, people may feel this weight even more. Psychotherapist Shannon Garcia said that not having work friends is a common topic for her clients with social anxiety.
“Remote work and social distancing has made workplace interactions more difficult,” she said. “Without steady face time with our co-workers, we’re less likely to build close friendships. If you’re wanting to make work friends, it might take more effort on your part. If you’re not looking for work friendships, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
I’m an example of this. I’ve made close work friendships that outlasted the job, but I’ve also worked in an office where I had many acquaintances and no friends. Work friendships can help make long, sluggish days shorter, but I firmly believe that you don’t need to befriend your colleagues to be personally content and professionally successful. Here’s why:
Work friendships can be a boon, but they can also be a bust. What matters is treating everyone with friendliness and respect.
When you are socially anxious, it can seem like everyone is making lifelong, collegial friendships without you. Reality check: A lot of the time, those friendships end when the job does. As popular therapist and podcast host Esther Perel previously told HuffPost, these relationships are often conditional.
“What’s very interesting is how many people have friends at work and when they change the work, the friends don’t go with them,” Perel said. “It’s a really powerful thing to see how much of these relationships are actually circumstantial. One or two people may continue with you in life, and the others you probably will not see again.”
“Without steady face time with our co-workers, we’re less likely to build close friendships. If you’re wanting to make work friends, it might take more effort on your part. If you’re not looking for work friendships, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
When you are on the outside looking in at someone else’s work friendship, it can seem like something to covet. But it can also be messy and hard. One study of insurance company employees found that those with more work friends tended to receive higher ratings on performance reviews, but they were also the co-workers who reported being more emotionally exhausted from maintaining these bonds.
The lesson here: Don’t compare and despair over the work friendships others seem to enjoy — because you have no idea what they may be going through. It’s better to focus on your values. If you want work friends and don’t have them, it’s normal to feel lonely, but remember that friendships take time and effort to build.
“You may see two co-workers who have worked together for several years be best buddies, but you just started in the last six months. You aren’t at their level, and that’s OK. Friendships take time,” Garcia said.
And if you don’t want to make work friends, that’s OK, too. Garcia pointed to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research, which argues that our brains limit the number of close relationships we can have to about five people. “You may already have your five,” Garcia said.
You don’t need to make friends, but you do need to be friendly to get ahead at your job.
The good news is that you don’t need to be friends with your co-workers in order to be a person people want to work with.
To be successful, you simply need to be friendly, said Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group and the author of “Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.”
“Opportunities for your career, for your growth, for even getting your work done do not happen in a vacuum. They happen in collaboration and cooperation with other people. People want to work with people who are easy to work with,” Abbajay said. “Having a little bit of friendliness, having a little bit of openness to others makes them feel comfortable working with you, makes them feel like they want to work with you… This is how opportunities come your way.”
Just be sure you don’t seem averse to forging relationships. “Objectively, it’s perfectly fine to be friendless at work,” Ranger noted. “However, there is a certain bias in most American offices against introversion, and so there is a way that you are seen if you are not particularly interested in making friends at work that can become a hindrance to your career.“
In other words, your reputation matters. If co-workers see you as unfriendly and standoffish, they may not come to you for opportunities that could boost your profile and help you move up. So it’s important to make a point to interact with colleagues and be approachable, regardless of whether or not you want work friends.
“Having someone to roll eyes with and do sideways glances and smirk at dumb stuff with is really nice. I’ve had that, and I’ve never even exchanged phone numbers with that person.”
This friendliness does not have to be an exhausting, elaborate endeavor, either. For example, if you are working remotely, you can show friendliness by sending your co-worker a direct message telling them you liked their recent idea, Abbajay suggested. “The key for this is that when we’re virtual, it takes some intentionality to make it happen. You’re not going to run into someone in the hallway or the copy room,” she advised. And if you are new and working in-person, you can network and ask a colleague to coffee to learn more about what they do.
Just don’t feel pressure to make a relationship with a co-worker more than it is. You do not have to be friends for it to be meaningful.
“Having someone to roll eyes with and do sideways glances and smirk at dumb stuff with is really nice. I’ve had that, and I’ve never even exchanged phone numbers with that person,” Ranger said, adding that one piece of advice she gives to clients with depression is that “You don’t have to make friends everywhere you go. You just have to interact.”
Ultimately, making a work friend is not going to make or break your experience at a job. That’s up to you.
Take it from me. What I remember about the time I spent being friendless in an office job is that once I made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be making any friends, I could focus on making alliances.
I made a point to ask people I admired if I could eat lunch with them to learn about their projects so I could be on their radar for opportunities, but I didn’t feel pressure to make it a habit. I freed myself from caring about petty office drama. And I used the time I did not spend going to work happy hours hanging out with my actual friends.