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I’ve long believed that friendships and work don’t necessarily mix. However, in the past few years I’ve refined my stance on the topic a bit.

The Argument Against Friends at Work

First, a little background: I’ve seen many situations where friendships in the workplace create sticky, complicated, and unnecessary interpersonal problems. We’ve probably all experienced it or witnessed it. When people are friends and co-workers, the social and professional lines can easily become blurred.

Friends have a disagreement outside of work, for example, and inevitably bring that tension with them to the office. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, friends create such a strong personal bond, they have trouble focusing on work during business hours. They can become cliquish and exclude others who aren’t a part of the friend group. Before long, the workplace feels like high school.

I’ve also seen (and personally experienced) cases where superiors and subordinates have deep friendships, and this makes the problem even worse. When you have personal ties to someone, it becomes much harder to respect the organizational hierarchy. Expectations change. As the subordinate, you secretly expect favorable treatment. As the superior, you secretly worry about how to address difficult issues. When all is going well—at work and outside of work—it’s no problem. But once an issue surfaces in either arena, it can easily spread into the other.

These are all the reasons I’ve previously discouraged close friendships with co-workers and colleagues. However, I have made a slight modification to this.

The Argument for Friends at Work

Here’s why my thinking has shifted: A survey conducted by Gallup suggests that close friendships at work can boost employee satisfaction by as much as 50%. Further, it says that people with a “best friend” at work are 7 times more likely to engage fully in their work.

So, there’s something positive to be said for the productivity of personal bonds. Friendship can enhance collaboration and ease communication. It can make work more enjoyable and stimulating. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed and experienced this upside as well.

The Middle Ground

Now, where does this leave us? Should you have friends at work or not?

My new line of thinking goes like this: I believe it is, indeed, a positive thing to have friends at work. But I encourage “work friends” rather than “personal friends”.

Here’s the difference: A work friend is someone you primarily interact with at work. You might hang out together at lunch, grab a cup of coffee, or take a walk in the noon sunshine. You might share details about your life that you wouldn’t necessarily share with the whole team. You might even grab a cocktail or hit up a kickboxing class together once in a while.

But, in my perspective, “work friends” have limits that “personal friends” don’t.

Personal friends spend significant time together outside of work. They might know one another’s families, go on vacation together, or share deeply intimate feelings and beliefs with one another.

I wouldn’t encourage these activities with work friends. Let’s face it: You already spend a lot of time together at work. Adding a deep level of engagement outside of work can strain the relationship—and this is a relationship that has to remain functional and productive.

Even the best personal relationships are complicated. Why add a new level of complexity to the already complex workplace dynamics?

With work friends, you have to keep perspective and balance. In short, you have to be adults. The primary goal is to work together well. A little personal rapport supports that. Too much, harms it.

I’ve had work friends that later, after we went our separate ways in business, became personal friends. We shared more and spent more quality time together. I’ve also had personal friends that became work friends. As a result, we created a little distance to maintain professionalism. It didn’t harm our friendship; but it did change it. We were no longer purely focused on having fun. We had a new primary purpose.

What Say You?

I realize that my approach my not align with yours—and that’s okay. I’m curious about your experiences. Do you have “personal friends” at work? Have you ever encountered a problem because of it or do you experience the benefits? How do you feel about “work friends”? Is that a concept you agree with or does it feel wrong in some way?

Please share your thoughts in the comments!