I have a best friend at work

We were in a meeting last week talking about virtual working and how often people who are in virtual teams should/could come in to meet each other face to face, and for what reasons. We had some debate on this and then someone said that his concern was with the Gallup question on the employee engagement survey that we use. One of the questions respondents are asked to rate is 'I have a best friend at work'. His concern was something on the lines of if it is important for motivation and productivity to have a best friend at work then how would people find a best friend or develop a relationship that would qualify as such if they weren't meeting face to face as often or even at all.

The Gallup Management Journal has a short article about having a best friend at work saying:

Human beings are social animals, and work is a social institution. Long-term relationships are often formed at work — networking relationships, friendships, even marriages. In fact, if you did not meet your spouse in college, chances are you met him or her at work. The evolution of quality relationships is very normal and an important part of a healthy workplace. In the best workplaces, employers recognize that people want to forge quality relationships with their coworkers, and that company allegiance can be built from such relationships.

The development of trusting relationships is a significant emotional compensation for employees in today's marketplace. Thus, it is easy to understand why it is such a key trait of retention, and is one of the 12 key discoveries from a multiyear research effort by The Gallup Organization

But the article does not comment about the virtual team or a distributed/dispersed workforce. This may be because it was published in 1999 and the technology and/or remote working possibility wasn't advanced enough to make the eventuality even worth raising.

Making an assumption, that it is important to have a best friend at work what are we (organizations) in danger of losing if people who are working remotely from each other respond to the employee engagement question that they don't have a best friend at work.

First it seems that we are in danger of losing the staff themselves to other companies. Indeed, I was talking with a person last week who used to work for Salesforce, working out of her home, and she left to join a company with thriving face to face office environment that she could go to every day. She said that she left Salesforce because she felt isolated and missed a feeling of community. Not only she left but one of her colleagues left with her to join the same firm.

Second we might lose the collaboration and knowledge sharing that comes both from casual face to face contact (in the US called the 'water cooler' contact)

Third we might lose the sense of trust people build in each other when they are interacting face to face and see the way each acts in meetings, conversations, responsiveness to requests, or proactive actions. Trust in others is an essential part of an well functioning organization. A book that someone recommended me – that I haven't yet read – when I was casually talking about this topic is Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, by Francis Fukayama.

Fourth the health and well being of our employees might start to deteriorate, and more sick days bring more cost to the organization. As I started to mull over this aspect of having a best friend at work the RSA Journal landed in my mailbox with a fascinating article in it "Lonely Planet" The authors make the point that:

Technology has made it possible for people to connect in ways never imagined, and people worldwide have jumped at the opportunity. Social networking, once the domain of family influence, college fraternities and local business groups, has gone global and online. The dramatic rise of the mobile phone and broadband connectivity has made it possible to follow what others are doing 24 hours a day and to maintain friendships across time and distance. Although meeting new friends online remains the exception rather than the rule, online social networking is associated with an increase in number of friends, though what it means to be a friend is also changing.

The world is becoming less welcoming of fully embodied social connections in the traditional sense, with committed, enduring social identities being replaced by shorter-term, more instrumental collaborations.

Note the phrase "though what it means to be a friend is also changing", the authors go on to discuss the risks inherent in 'shorter-term, more instrumental collaborations' on social connection, isolation, and quality of relationship. If people feel social isolated there are medical ramifications:

Research in social neuroscience indicates that a feeling of social isolation is reflected in different neural pathways in the brain that affect social cognition and executive function, and can contribute to rises in stress hormones and blood pressure, and even genetic expression that promotes inflammation and impairs immunity. Feelings of social isolation engender hostility, impair sleep and, over time, seriously accelerate age-related decline in health and wellbeing.

In order to help virtual workers feel part of the community, involved and not isolated, and able to build trust with each other what can organizations do? In another article Sense of Virtual Community-Maintaining the Experience of Belonging the authors describe some research they did on a well-accepted framework of sense of community. This framework, developed by, McMillan and Chavis, has four conditions for building types of communities in which friendships are more likely to flourish:

  • Feelings of membership: feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community.
  • Feelings of influence: feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community.
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them.
  • Shared emotional connection: feelings of relationships, shared history, and a "spirit" of community

The authors were researching whether the four conditions are required for people to feel a sense of community in a virtual experience and their conclusions are more or less, yes. In saying this they make the important observation that:

Virtual communities, like all communities, require ongoing community maintenance activities …. Community-like processes and the sense of virtual community outcome cannot be guaranteed. They require people to enact them and to continue enacting them over time. .. companies must give special consideration to the types of virtual settlements and virtual communities they want to create. Members will enact these processes only if they perceive a benefit. Companies must rethink the type of virtual groupings they hope to create, focusing on the underlying needs and values of the consumer.

As organizations like the one I am working in urge and encourage workers to become more 'virtual' it requires that line managers, and organization design and development practitioners take an active part in facilitating the development of virtual communities that build trust, enduring friendship, and connection. How else are people going to be able to check the box that they have a best friend at work? It's important for their own health and the organization's health that they can do this.

I'd love to hear any tips you can share on how to build on-line communities that promote trust and quality friendships among participants.