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Opinion | Why it’s so hard to make friends at work

It is a challenge to make friends in a work setting where there is a lot to do in little time

Having coffee with a colleague is an easy way to break the ice
Having coffee with a colleague is an easy way to break the ice (iStock)

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There is an indie coffee shop near my office. Every morning, as I wait for my cold brew, I read the newspaper and check email. I sit in a corner, plan my day and enjoy the scent of freshly roasted coffee. Just as I am about to leave, I invariably bump into another colleague who frequents the place. We chat for a bit and head upstairs. I consider her my friend. I can point to other colleagues who have become friends because we worked on similar projects or simply passed each other in corridors.

That is why it surprised me that making friends at work was hard for millennials. According to a study commissioned by Milkround, a UK-based job board, 65% of those aged 25 to 34 years struggle with friendships at work. Almost half (48%) of those under 25 admitted to having called in sick at least once to avoid the social scene at work.

While analysing this data, it must be kept in mind that the UK is what anthropologists define as a low context culture. People in low context cultures tend to communicate directly with information rather than emotion, have short-term relationships, follow rules and are task-oriented. However, even in high context cultures like India, millennials have reported similar challenges, albeit to a slightly lesser degree.

There are four key reasons for the breakdown of workplace friendships among millennials. First, rising stress levels. Stress is an all-consuming emotion. When we are stressed, we tend to close ourselves to new experiences and create an impenetrable wall around us. Second, long-term employment is a thing of the past. Job-hopping is the norm among millennials. Since we don’t stick around, we have replaced building long-term relationships with maintaining transitory politeness. Third, with virtual offices and flexible timings, frequency of face to face interactions and shared experiences has reduced. Fourth, a dizzying cocktail of time famine and social media has transformed the geometry of relationships.

Millennials are constantly connected with friends from school and college on social media. It is easier to keep in touch with old friends than to build new friends in a work setting where there is too much to do in too little time. Couple this with the relentless parroting of work-life balance on wellness shows and you can empathize with the workplace friendship conundrum faced by millennials.

Let’s start by recognizing that in today’s age, work-life balance is a myth. Work is part of life, not an independent entity. If we want to do meaningful work and have a personal life, striving for work-life harmony is a more realistic goal.

The first step is to realize that we can’t find the harmony between work and life alone. We need a support system, a sense of belonging and a feeling of community. Isn’t that what camaraderie or friendship is all about?

It is a no-brainer that organizations should encourage workplace friendships. However, they must realize that dated methods of enhancing bonding like annual retreats and year-end parties have a negligible effect. Thanks to Paul Ingram’s research, now we have scientific proof that people don’t mix at mixers. They hang out with those they already know and head back home.

That said, the onus of building workplace friendships cannot be on companies entirely. As Dr Tanya Menon explains in her TED talk, we need to fight our filters, overcome our biases and connect with those we don’t know.

Apart from the intrinsic humanity of reaching out, it is worth noting that a large chunk of new work opportunities can be traced to these informal, serendipitous friendships. Given the importance of such serendipity, companies should invest in building social hubs—community spaces where employees can partake of shared experiences, get to know each other and in time, emerge as friends.

Millennial Matters discusses the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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