Friendships at work are a driving force behind employee satisfaction. But how best to build them?

Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University in Montreal, shared tips for both employers and workers on how to develop those friendships at work.

Kirmayer consults with companies and organizations that are looking for evidence-based information and advice on how to encourage appropriate connections (and boundaries) among employees.

Here are her tips, in her own words:

What companies can do to promote social connection at work

Understand that social connection is a key component of employee wellness initiatives. It’s not uncommon for managers and employees to view friendships as being at odds with workplace productivity or engagement. The most helpful change a company can make is to promote an environment where the importance of social connection is understood and strategies for building workplace friendships and connections are accessible.

Create opportunities for social gatherings. Above and beyond meetings and the obligatory holiday party, it helps to create an environment where employees have the chance to connect over shared interests, hobbies or experiences. Ideally, these should be varied (so that everyone feels included and has the chance to find something they are genuinely interested in) and voluntary. Friendships really only count when people are willfully choosing to connect.

Create opportunities for shared projects and goals that have little to do with work targets. Working toward a common, communal goal (such as a community-based initiative or creative project) can lead to opportunities for bonding and create a sense of “we-ness” that benefits us both socially and professionally.


What employees can do to build friendships and connections at work

Develop closeness through self-disclosure. Sharing personal information is one way to build trust and closeness, which characterize good friendships. Make a gradual effort to move your conversations from work-related topics to others. Talk about your interests and experiences outside of work and show an interest in your colleagues. If or when it feels right, extend an invitation to get together in a different context.

Avoid oversharing and follow the other person’s lead. If they aren’t reciprocating by sharing their own feelings, perspectives or experiences, it’s usually best to focus your efforts elsewhere. As much as possible, avoid venting about things that could put your reputation or job in jeopardy. Gossiping is usually more harmful than helpful long-term. Think through the pros and cons before sharing something personal or even connecting through social media.

Offer to help but remember that friendships should be based on equality and reciprocity. Exchanging practical support (e.g., meeting minutes, feedback on a report or deliverable) is a helpful way to develop closer bonds at work and can benefit our professional goals and growth. It’s important to remember that healthy friendships are rooted in equality and reciprocity. Continually offering to do things for a colleague without getting anything in return can create an imbalance in the relationship, which takes away from the benefits we receive from that friendship and may negatively impact our work performance.

Remember your reasons for wanting to be friends in the first place. Ideally, friendships should stem from a desire to connect, to feel heard and to feel supported. Be wary of friendships where you feel as though you (or the other person) are being motivated by a desire to compete or “get ahead.”

Recognize and respect boundaries. To maintain workplace friendships, it helps to be sensitive to your friend’s needs and boundaries and to understand that these vary (e.g., according to our mood or deadlines). Respect a friend’s limits or boundaries, whether it’s a reluctance to share something personal or a need to prioritize work over an important conversation. Being clear about your own boundaries will help you strike a work-life fit (the idea of work-life balance is an illusion) that works for you and your friendship. Not everyone has the same comfort level with having friends at work and that’s perfectly OK.