We All Need Work Wives: Here's How Bosses Can Encourage Female Friendship
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“Do you have a best friend at work?”
It’s an innocuous enough question, right? Not so much, according to Gallup. Apparently, in 30 years of workplace engagement research, that’s the most “controversial” question the analytics company has ever asked. It riles up a whole slew of bosses who don’t believe friendships should have anything to do with a company’s bottom line.
Unfortunately, women’s workplace relationships are often perceived as particularly unprofessional. To some men, the intimacy women exhibit with their friends can seem insular, chit-chatty and even threatening. Many— if not most — women have had the experience of talking with a female coworker when a male colleague walks by and says, “What’s the gossip now, ladies?” Or, “Drama, drama, drama.” While these comments are usually meant to be joking and friendly, they also play into stereotypes about women’s “idle chatter.” (For what it’s worth, research suggests men gossip just as much as women.)
But Gallup has consistently found that having a best friend at work actually improves performance for both men and women. As of 2018, Gallup found that 2 in 10 employees have best friends at work, but they estimate that if that number grew to 6 in 10 employees, companies would see 36 percent fewer safety incidents, 12 percent higher profits, and 7 percent more engaged customers.
For women, having a close friend at work can make or break their investment in a job. “Our research has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job,” Gallup reports. “For example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).” Gallup found that women who have a best friend at work are less likely to be looking for other jobs, more likely to feel solidarity with their team, to rate their team and organization’s performance highly, to understand what’s expected of them and even to take risks that lead to innovation. Plus, according to a 2017 study in the journal Organization Science, social friendships among women in male-dominated businesses (where women are seen as “other” and struggle harder to “prove” themselves) significantly reduce conflict among female employees.
All of this makes sense. From an evolutionary standpoint, women’s social bonds were integral to our survival, and they continue to be a vital part of how women see themselves as belonging in the world. A 2019 study from Georgia State University suggests that “females find same-sex social interactions to be more rewarding than males, and females are more sensitive to the rewarding actions of oxytocin… [which] plays a major role in regulating many forms of social behavior as well as pair bonding.”
For women (and men!), feeling “seen” by a close friend as we go about our days can be like standing on a powerful springboard. A best friend is someone we feel comfortable bouncing new ideas off of, and who propels us to take the next big leap. So how do business leaders encourage these kinds of friendships? Here are a few places to start.
1. Promote a culture of open communication
For workplace friendships to be truly beneficial to your bottom line, you must have a culture of open dialogue. Everyone should be encouraged to volunteer their thoughts and contribute according to their skills, and managers should make a sensitive effort to draw out people who aren’t immediately comfortable speaking up. Not only will this environment make it easier for your employees to be their true selves around their coworkers, but it will also allow them to work together more effectively to meet the group’s goals.
On the flip side, if a company’s leadership is uninterested in new ideas and works to hamper transparent communication, coworkers may still form close friendships — but they’re more likely to spend their time commiserating as opposed to pushing each other to greater heights of engagement. As they talk about their experiences with demeaning or disorganized management, they’ll probably grow more entrenched in their negative impressions of the company. Operating inside a toxic work culture, workplace friendships become petri dishes of unhappiness, breeding more unhappiness. So for employee friendships to work in your favor, your team needs to trust and believe in your business enough that they inspire each other to try harder.
2. Volunteer as a team or host philanthropic events
Meaningful experiences bring people together. If your team volunteers together for a particular cause, or hosts a benefit, everyone gets the “helping high” that comes with doing something kind for others, and that emotional openness is fertile ground for making friends. The 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey found that 70 percent of respondents believed volunteering as a team actually boosted morale more than company social mixers, and 89 percent believed that company-sponsored charity functions made for a better work environment. Plus, these projects have the added benefit of requiring people to work together, but not in their usual professional capacities. So there’s room for people to shine in different ways.
3. Encourage collaboration and cross-team projects
The manager’s number one responsibility is to make sure everyone knows what they need to do. But once that’s handled, combining teams to fuse their expertise on a certain project is a great way to land on innovative ideas while allowing new people to meet. A Google survey of 258 North American companies found that 88 percent of respondents who said that employee morale and job satisfaction were high also strongly agreed that their company supported collaboration and knowledge-sharing between organizational silos.
4. Create fun circumstances for people to meet
The office Christmas party is legendary for enabling employees to get acquainted in a “looser” capacity, but you don’t need spiked eggnog to start people chatting. Set up channels for employees to mingle all year round. For example, you could try a random coffee pairings calendar. Anyone who wants to participate will be randomly matched with someone else in the office for a weekly (or monthly) coffee date. Maybe you get matched with someone you’ve never met before, or maybe you get matched with someone you know, but haven’t really checked in with in a while. You could even switch out the coffee for pedicures, or a yoga class.
Another option is to organize an office potluck where everyone brings a dish they made themselves. Food has a special way of bringing people together and often facilitates conversations about people’s childhoods and backgrounds.
It can be anxiety-inducing for a new employee to introduce themselves to everyone. So after they get settled in — you don’t want to overwhelm them on their first day — it’s a sweet little hack to place a bowl of candy on their desk. People will have a reason to stop by and introduce themselves without too much awkward small talk. Bonus points if you choose a retro candy that’s sure to spark some memories or strong opinions (Pixie Stix or Warheads, anyone?).