Don't rely on work for socialization
It's precarious to confuse professional relationships and friendships.
The other day, I wrote something on LinkedIn about remote work, as I often do. With the stance that companies claiming that "remote work doesn't work" have bad management — they haven't figured out how to manage a team in a remote environment. One guy replied:
Humans are social animals and working together is part of socializing. Covid demonstrated how isolated and alienated many people felt.
-Michael S., retired
Perhaps comments about work shouldn't come from people who are not currently working... but setting that aside, a huge problem with his argument is the assumption that work should be a source of social interaction. It can be, but it doesn't have to be.
In fact, social interactions at work have always been problematic. They can be exclusionary (a "boy's club"), unnecessarily demanding (drinks after work, hard for parents or people with long commutes), and downright terrible for people who face discrimination in the office, such as people of color or people with disabilities.
When you socialize at work, things get messy. Work doesn't have your best interests in mind, no matter how well you get along with your boss or colleagues. If people rely on work as a source of socialization, it can create a world of hurt when a work situation doesn't end well.
Why wasn't I promoted?
Why was I laid off and not my colleague?
Why didn't this person protect me?
Friendship won't override business decisions. (And if friendship does override a business decision, that's an entire problem by itself.)
People are rethinking workplace connections
Once upon a time, people may have relied on the workplace for social connections. We went to the office, we stayed there for eight hours per day, we came home. It didn't leave a lot of time in the day for outside interactions, other than evenings and weekends.
But then came the internet. We could connect with people all over the world based on our interests, rather than proximity. Smartphones put those connections right in our hands. We're no longer confined by hours (who hasn't checked social media or sent texts to friends during the workday?).
Whereas the workplace may have been social connections via convenience, it's not anymore.
According to a Company Culture Survey from Capterra, one of the least important factors in job satisfaction is relationships with co-workers. This is true across the board, whether employees are in-office, fully remote, or hybrid. We don't need those co-worker relationships anymore, because we have so many other options for socialization.
There have been some reports about Gen Z being disconnected, but this is because they lack mentorship, not social connections. In Adobe's Future Workforce Study, only 83% of Gen Z say that mentorship is crucial for their development but only 52% reported having a mentor. They're looking for ways to improve their skills and navigate the workplace, not develop "work friends."
Workplace connections benefit the company
Of course, many companies want employees to form connections. They think that workplace connections = more loyal employees.
In’s newsletter, Where’s Your Ed At , he talks about companies dragging employees back into the office under the false premise of "collaboration" and "connection." He writes.
I’m not saying that having friends from work is bad, but I am also not saying it’s a good thing either. Companies that actively use this as a means of guilting you into returning are intentionally trying to dissolve your work-life balance, looking for more ways in which you can be “loyal” to the company. If you’re loyal to your friends, you’re less likely to leave for fear of inconveniencing them - and this is something a company is intimately aware of.
They’re worried that a lack of physical presence weakens these connections, and thus their ability to retain you.
Employees are catching on. It used to be common for companies to tout themselves as a "family" in job descriptions. We're connected; we take care of each other; we're all in this together.
Now, this is seen as a giant red flag. Work is not family, in the same way that work friends are not your actual friends. You can talk about anything with your real friends, without fear of retaliation or that it might impact your livelihood. With your friends, you can show up as your authentic self and not need to edit in any way. The same is not true for work. You might be willing to do anything for your family, selflessly — but doing that for work can lead to unrealistic expectations or exploitation.
I was close friends with a work colleague, who was also my boss. She was a mentor in my early years and more like a peer during the latter part of my tenure. We'd text each other constantly, talk about our lives outside of work.
But when I quit, it caused a rift. She eventually stopped talking to me. I'm not sure the exact reason, but I suspect it was because she saw my rejection of the company as a rejection of her in some way. So she threw away more than a decade of friendship.
Did I stay at the company longer than I should have, out of friendship or maybe loyalty? Perhaps. I think about that sometimes. Do I regret the friendship we had? It's hard to say. It's hard to look back on a relationship that soured because of work and wonder what type of foundation it had in the first place.
The workplace should be about professionalism, not social connection
I'm not suggesting work culture should be stoic and devoid of human interaction. Instead, I'm suggesting that culture should be based on professionalism, respect, and trust. Professionalism instead of favoritism. Respect for the talents a teammate brings to the table. Trust in meeting results and meeting company objectives.
It can be fun — like sharing memes or pet photos. It can be empathetic, if someone is going through a personal crisis or health issue. The relationships can be meaningful — but they're different than friendships. They shouldn't be seen as a source of socialization.
The difference is expectations. What should we expect from a professional relationship? Teamwork, certainly. But also very distinct from our personal relationships. And certainly relying on the workplace for socialization comes with a lot of risks.
Form impactful relationships with people at work, certainly. Get the work done. No reason those relationships have to be tied to an office, especially with all the collaboration tools available.
But reserve your socialization for friends, family, and/or communities — wherever you can find "your people."
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