Are we here to work or make friends?

Apr 5, 2022

For decades Gallup, the renowned polling and analytics company, has included this question in in their annual employee engagement survey: Do you have a best friend at work?

Many managers, even at Gallup, have scoffed at the question. What does friendship have to do with work? Apparently plenty. Over and over Gallup has used that question to demonstrate that performance and workplace friendship are positively correlated. Specifically, women who “strongly agree” they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged in their work (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%). Another Gallup survey from 2006 found that both men and women who claim to have a best friend at work, 51% reported that they “work with passion” and “feel a profound connection to the company”, only 10% of those without a best friend at work responded that they feel that passion and connection. It impacts retention too: 75% of respondents who had a best friend at work planned to be with the company for at least another year, compared with 51% who didn't have a best friend.

Beyond polling, academia has studied the way workplace friendships are built as well. These studies say the key is informal communication, which they define as “real-time, unplanned and interpersonal interaction that is likely to occur when people actually ‘bump’ into each other” (Andrea, Arnaldo, & Romano, 2011). This type non-work conversation is far from frivolous, it’s the raw ingredient for friendships, trust, and therefore high performing teams.

If you’re on a remote team, the second half of that definition likely gave you pause. Without a water cooler to chat around, hallways to ‘bump’ into each other, or lunches to catch up over, fostering informal communication is a challenge. When work is only about the work, teams can end up stuck in the mud. Without a workplace that naturally encourages it, remote teams have to commit to a deliberate practice of informal communication. The obvious tension between “deliberate” and “informal” underscores why remote teams struggle with this. In practice, what deliberate informal communication looks like depends on you and what comes naturally to your team.

One easy place to start as a manager is checking in with your teammates regularly. The way to do this effectively is through “emotional acknowledgement,” the act of noticing non-verbal cues from your teammates and acknowledging them. It’s as simple as mentioning to a frowning co-worker “you look upset this afternoon” or a smiling teammate “you seem excited today.” It seems like a small thing, but studies have shown it’s remarkably effective way to build connection and trust.

Something we started to do organically at Frond is share a few things beyond work in our daily stand-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as what we did over the weekend, other times what you’re reading, or listening to, or maybe something interesting about the town you grew up in. We found that these small glimpses beyond work fostered more connection on the team than anything else.

Beyond that, a great resource comes from GitLab. They’re an all-remote company that is pioneering many of remote work’s best practices. Their leadership is encouraged to create space for informal communication with their teams. That can range from small commitments like using emojis or dedicating time at the beginning of Zoom calls to ice breakers, to more involved efforts like social calls, game nights, and co-working calls. GitLab’s employee handbook is public and has a whole section filled with creative way to encourage informal communication.

Helping cultivate happier, healthier, higher performing remote teams (and communities!) is our reason for being. We’ve got more exciting experiments coming in this space soon. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

The Frond Team