In college, Nicole Cortez easily could find a friend to grab a bite or hit a happy hour. Then she entered the workplace and took a job at an insurance brokerage where most of her colleagues are over 35.

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In college, Nicole Cortez easily could find a friend to grab a bite or hit a happy hour.

Then she entered the workplace and took a job at an insurance brokerage where most of her colleagues are over 35. Although her company hosts occasional happy hours, Cortez, 24, lacks close friends at work who aren’t rushing home to families.

Friendships might seem like Cortez’s personal business, but her social connections have become her employer’s concern too. Research shows employees who have close friends at work are more engaged, more likely to stay, and more likely to say they love their companies.

Millennials — generally considered to be in their 20s and early 30s — search for closeness in their office relationships, perhaps more than any other age group does. Millennials believe these relationships will enhance their career and make their work environment better. “I am jealous of my friends who are super close to their co-workers,” Cortez admits. “I would like to socialize with my team outside the office, but most of them want to disconnect.”

As millennials stream into workplaces, businesses are perplexed by how to help these young workers build camaraderie at work while keeping other generations engaged, too. While nearly half of all workers believe office friendships increase workplace happiness, the importance of these friendships means something different to each generation.

Memorial Hospital Miramar in Miramar, Fla., has long had a social activities committee and experimented with everything from bowling tournaments to Bingo night to help employees bond. It even tried hosting television watch parties. Yet, the hospital still hasn’t found the right offerings for its younger workers, says Terri Garner, the hospital’s human resources director. The hospital surveyed its workers last October and found its younger staffers want more work friends and better opportunities to make them.

“It seems like for millennials, it’s a big piece of their work life,” Garner says.

Increased productivity

A survey by LinkedIn found workplace friendships not only made millennials happy: Half of those surveyed said such relationships motivate them, and 30 percent said these friendships make them productive. They view the workplace as an ideal venue to look for people to have dinner with, to catch a movie with and hang out.

At the same time, Generation X, the mid-level leaders who are in their late 30s, 40s and 50s, want friends in the workplace but aren’t as interested in socializing with them outside the office. Being forced to do so as part of team-building and company-sponsored activities drives Gen-Xers crazy, says workplace consultant Cam Marston. The challenge for managers becomes how to balance a workplace that young workers see as a venue to expand their social network and older generations see as a separate from their personal lives.

Marston, president of Generational Insights, which consults businesses on generational trends in the workplace, says the more successful companies encourage young workers to take charge of creating the camaraderie they want at work. “Young people are saying we want a happy hour or we want a cooking class and we would like to organize it.” Marston says. “Employers are then facilitating those activities by giving millennials space on the bulletin board or Intranet and not frowning when requests are made.”

Razor Suleman says his California company, Achievers, which sells employee recognition and rewards software, embraces what Marston describes. To keep its young workers happy, the company encourages them to initiate social activities they want. They already have launched a guitar club, a marathon running group and a baseball team. “The company will promote it and be the financial support, but we let niche groups evolve and relationships form,” Suleman explains. In some instances, the older generations will participate. “Their attitude is I am happy to join you but I’m not organizing it for you.”

Engagement a priority

Other companies, like the accounting firm Grant Thornton, still are trying to figure out the right approach. Doug Gawrych, managing partner of Grant Thornton South Florida, says in the local office, where 60 percent of professionals are younger than 30, keeping workers engaged is a high priority. The office has tried team building around community service projects and sports events and may start a kickball team. “We want to create a culture they want to be part of,” he said. “It’s difficult to figure out what they are interested in. We have a social committee with professionals at various levels who are thinking through new things we can do.”

Vivian Carrasquero, 23, and Luis Vega, 25, are new hires at Grant Thornton in Fort Lauderdale. As they transition into the workforce, they say are looking to make work friends and build social connections. Both are excited about the possibility of a company kickball team, but Vega says he would be as happy going to dinner with his team after a long day of work: “It doesn’t have to be a firm-scheduled event. It would be great just to socialize with people on my work team who have the same hours.”

Carrasquero says she chose Grant Thornton because she had made friends at the firm during her internship and liked the vibe: “I think those friendships translate into a positive working environment, especially when you’re putting in hours.”

Marston says older generations, while reluctant, are going to need to make more effort to connect with their team on a personal level: “Those who don’t do consensus-building and are not interested in socializing with the team outside the workplace are getting pushback. Millennials are saying I don’t feel connected to my workplace or my boss.”

To be fair, Marston says that most people, regardless of generation, want friends at work: “It’s just a matter of how far that friendship goes.”