Survey: Women Want Close Relationships at Work

Amy Adkins

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Even today, some companies still discourage employees from forming friendships at work. Other organizations go as far as setting strict policies against friendships in the workplace, believing that socialization hinders productivity.

This is misguided, particularly when it comes to managing and motivating female employees -- a solid majority of whom value the social aspects of their jobs.

The fact is, friendship and employee engagement are closely linked, and employee engagement has a positive impact on business outcomes such as productivity. Organizations need to understand that friendships are important to all employees and that people can have friends at work and still do their jobs well.

Lack of Friendships in the Workplace Fractures Engagement

It's not clear that many organizations understand this. Maybe that's why employees score the "I have a best friend at work" item the lowest of all 12 elements in Gallup's Q12 employee engagement assessment, with men scoring this item slightly lower than women do.

While some companies remain skeptical of the "best friend at work" item, there is one stubborn fact about this element of engagement: It predicts performance. Early research on employee engagement and the Q12 items revealed a unique social trend among employees on top-performing teams. When employees have a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they take positive actions that benefit the business -- actions they might not have taken if they did not have strong relationships with their coworkers.

Gallup research proves that having a best friend at work relates to better business outcomes, including profitability, safety, inventory control and -- most notably -- customers' emotional connection with and loyalty to the organization. In moderately to highly engaged organizations, the "best friend" item, along with items measuring recognition and progress, is more predictive of turnover than in less-engaged organizations.

Beyond business outcomes or scientific validity, though, is a simple premise: People are people, and they need to create relationships. In its Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived report, Gallup found that two-thirds of women say the social aspect of a job is a "major reason" why they work, confirming that women's friendships at work affect their overall engagement. So when organizations ignore the friendship factor, they drag down employee engagement and are less likely to recruit and retain women.

Women Out of the Workforce Have Higher Social Well-Being

Having a best friend at work positively affects a woman's engagement and her social well-being. Gallup considers individuals to have thriving (as opposed to struggling or suffering) social well-being when they can agree with these statements:

  • My relationship with my spouse, partner or closest friend is stronger than ever.

  • My friends and family give me positive energy every day.

  • I always make time for regular trips or vacations with friends and family.

  • Someone in my life always encourages me to be healthy.

Slightly more female employees (38%) than male employees (36%) have thriving social well-being. But women who are out of the workforce best manage their social well-being: Forty-five percent of women in this group are thriving in this element -- seven percentage points higher than for working women.

Women who are out of the workforce may simply have more time for social activities. But that doesn't mean companies are off the hook. Women continue to leave the workforce, and the majority of women with children would prefer to be at home.

Almost half of female employees are actively looking for a different job or watching for employment opportunities. If organizations want to attract, engage and retain female employees, they must do everything they can to help employed women lead a life well-lived, which includes encouraging them to be friends with their peers.

Go Beyond a Fun Workplace

Companies can't ask employees to check their basic human needs at the door. For women and men, work should be a place where they can connect with and relate to coworkers. Employees want that social outlet. They want a job where they have someone they can confide in and share their successes and challenges with. Managers don't need to force relationships between team members, but they should create opportunities for people to get to know one another.

Encouraging friendships at work doesn't mean organizations need to install game rooms and hold weekly happy hours to promote a fun workplace. The goal of encouraging people to get to know one another is to build stronger connections. The more connected employees feel to their teams and coworkers, the better their performance is.

Work friendships influence how employees get their work done. Employees rate the "best friend" item higher when they are on teams and projects with people they like and trust. Companies that discourage or deter employees from being friends hurt themselves and make it harder to retain a competitive workforce.