With the rise of workplace perks like unlimited paid vacation and flexible work-from-home policies, it would be fair to assume freedom and autonomy are of utmost importance to today’s workers.

But in a survey of San Diego’s top workplaces, happy employees were more likely to report that people — colleagues, mentors, bosses or workplace friends — were the reason they loved their work.

Relationships with colleagues have always played a role in workplace satisfaction, but experts say it’s possible these office relationships are more critical today than they once were.

Thanks to the technology-fueled modern lifestyle, people are experiencing more social isolation than years past. With younger generations, church has fallen out of style, dinner parties have died, and neighbors are just strangers who live next door. Human interaction is even being removed from daily life tasks like ordering lunch and shopping for groceries. A new feature of the Uber app even lets riders request that their drivers not speak to them at all.

“We’ve lost many forums, churches, and places where we had more time to discover meaningful relationships,” said Dan Negroni, a talent development consultant in San Diego. “Gone are the days of apprenticeship and mentorship for learning. Now we’re self-learning through platforms like YouTube.”

For many adults, that leaves one daily institution for them to form social bonds: the workplace. And employers should take note, because these social connections could be a meaningful contributor to worker performance, satisfaction and retention.

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What happens when you have friends at work?

There’s an extensive body of research dating back to the 1980s that shows workplace friendships reduce turnover and absenteeism, as well as boosting feelings of job security, comfort and job satisfaction. Employees with friends at work also tend to engage in altruistic behaviors by providing co-workers with help, guidance, advice, or feedback with various work-related matters.

Peer-reviewed research published in the journal American Psychologist also suggests that companies can benefit from such friendships, as these workers help each other and communicate well. Both of these behaviors can increase effort and production.

Negroni said startups and other modern companies aren’t off-base by offering free lunches, kombucha on tap, and video games in the break room. It’s not about the perks, it’s about the social gatherings that they inspire.

“The frat environment might actually work,” Negroni said. “A Cornell study showed that workplaces are more productive if people eat together. Employers don’t do this because millennials are entitled and want the perk. They’re doing this because we connect by sharing meals.”

At Shield AI, a robotics startup in San Diego, CEO Ryan Tseng said the company was very deliberate in creating their culture. Their company values, which include being kind and trustworthy, are regularly discussed at meetings. In the Union-Tribune’s workplace survey, administered in conjunction with Philadelphia-based Energage to determine San Diego County’s top workplaces, most of Shield AI’s employees mentioned their colleagues as the reason they loved their jobs.

“It comes down to the people — all the people I work with are amazing!” one anonymous employee wrote. “Truly a teamwork-oriented culture where everyone goes out of their way to help each other succeed.”

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Tseng said Shield AI makes an effort to know their employees as people, making sure they’re taking care of themselves and that they’re taking time for their family, friends, and “the things that energize them.”

“Co-workers have a huge influence on the way you feel at work and how you feel when you go home,” Tseng said.

Millennials and Gen Z: Do they need more help?

Negroni, who specializes in helping bridge generational gaps between baby boomers and younger workers like millennials or Gen Z, said he believes social connection is especially important for younger staff. They often haven’t built social skills by the time they reach the office and find themselves isolated and unsure how to establish meaningful relationships.

“They’re not learning these things in school, and then they get to the workplace and we expect them to know it,” Negroni said. “It’s a shockingly systematic problem.”

Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University, said it’s not just younger workers who need and value human connection in the workplace.

“Blurring the boundaries between your personal life and your work life might be more comfortable for younger generations, but the need for social connection is universal,” Kirmayer said.

She noted that older generations may actually feel the change of modern living — and the ensuing isolation — more acutely because they’ve benefited from social groups in the past. And they know what they’re missing.

Striking a balance by creating boundaries

While social bonds at work can be a boon for retention and employee satisfaction, some employers still feel a need to establish boundaries among workers. A 2007 study reported that friendships at work can lead to difficulties for management and negative emotions if friendships turn bitter.

Kirmayer, who works with corporations as a consultant, said issues can come up if friendships are threatened by changing hierarchies.

“An opportunity for promotions can create issues within friendships who were formerly at a similar level,” Kirmayer said. “We feel at risk of losing the friendship, or the boundaries can be blurred.”

Tseng said he believes leaders can be both kind and supportive of friendships, while also strict when necessary to cultivate the right balance within an organization.

“If someone is doing poorly — taking on challenging commitments and not delivering — then you need to tell them where they need to be, but also be kind about it,” Tseng said. “If you’re being so kind that you can’t give tough feedback, then you’ve got a problem.”

Kirmayer shared tips with the Union-Tribune about what companies and employees can do to cultivate meaningful friendships at work — without crossing boundaries.