Ask Our Boss: Do Office Friendships Help or Harm Us at Work?

Alison Rice

In our monthly column dedicated to helping you succeed faster, our publisher Alison Rice is answering your most pressing career questions. You know, the stuff you really want to ask your boss but can’t. Have a question? Ask it on Instagram or Facebook by tagging #AskOurBoss.

If you are reading this article, there’s a high chance you’re ambitious. You’re either in a period of career progression or you’re searching for it, which means you’re reading a lot of career articles. You’re also the very person the MyDomaine Australia team and I created this column for! So it is through this lens I answer this month’s reader question.

At this stage in your career, it is common to spend more time at work or working, than at home with your loved ones. Thanks to modern workplaces and technology that is changing, but I think it is safe to say that in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, we give our career a good nudge. Some of us are also choosing to become parents a little bit later, in a bid to gain more experience, stability and increase our earning power.

All of this time spent at work means we form close bonds with our colleagues. That’s not ground-breaking stuff. Plus, many of us were brought up being taught to make friends. It’s human nature. The real question I think, is: What type of workplace friendships do you hold, and do they service your ambition?

I reframe it from experience. I’ve had some epic work wives. They’ve seen me through breakups, bad bosses, moving house, moving country and yes, even on the dancefloor at midnight on a Friday when after work drinks turned into, well, getting turnt. It was only on reflection that I realised those friendships actually held me back professionally. We got too personal.

Forming close friendships at work can either be your ticket to play professionally, or a massive distraction. Having been on both sides, what I can tell you is life is lighter, brighter and more exciting when you surround yourself with the people you look up to.

The work to do here is quickly identifying what anchors you to your work wife or husband, and then, based on your ambition within the business you are in, decide whether you need to continue nourishing it or vector away from it. The latter won’t be easy, but it will benefit your career in the long run. We’ve all found ourselves in friendships we know aren’t good for us, and that’s OK.

This list isn’t definitive, but I hope it is a good start to helping you identify a healthy workplace friendship from a potentially damaging one.

Healthy workplace friendships

  • The daily conversation is positive and uplifting—you are each other’s cheerleaders.

  • The friendship propels your ambition and drive.

  • It is centred around solving tricky tasks, brainstorming together, just generally getting excited about what you might create or execute for the business.

  • Provides an outlet to be vulnerable on occasion—whether that is having a massive meme laugh or going for a coffee to get counsel on a challenging project, an upcoming meeting, or maybe even discussing an internal conflict (but only if you have the right experience to provide accurate and constructive advice).

Damaging workplace friendships

  • The daily conversation is generally negative and fails to move forward.

  • Together you critique new people, new ideas or new ways of working.

  • Feelings are discussed often and at length.

  • Your ambition, desire for progression and the business’ objectives are rarely discussed.

  • You each use the friendship for an outlet to complain or worse—discuss a colleague behind their back.

  • A lot of time spent on email together, or messaging each other constantly throughout the day.

From a manager standpoint, I can confirm we do notice office friendships. We also have our own (hard to believe, I know). Good managers are always observing—their people, the team’s health, the general atmosphere and team dynamic. Sometimes I am surprised, but it’s usually obvious who is friends with who. I’ve seen it all—the glances across the table, going to lunch, drinks or dinner without inviting the wider team, lingering in the hallways and toilets, texting under desks. None of it is wrong, but it does give me an entry point to start wondering if there's capacity to increase the workload. Or, what else those team members could be doing to help us grow the business. 

So, if your ambition is to reach a particular role or pay grade, then focus on that. Lean in to professional growth and limit distractions. I recommend spending more time with your manager or people in senior roles than with your direct colleagues. Spending time with senior members of the business is strategic, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Aligning yourself with high performers or those who have an internal following means you’ll always be learning. Smart turns of phrase, different opinions, new perspectives, insight into the broader business—you name it, you’ll experience it. We all need sponsors to get ahead and if we focus more on being respected than being liked, we will excel faster.

On the flip side, while I don’t subscribe to the notion that we have to make friends at work, if you do meet someone who makes you want to try harder and be better, then absolutely lock them in as your work wife or husband.

Remind your friends how special they are, with these Jasmine Dowling Love Notes ($28).  

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