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I don’t remember the moment that Francesco and I started referring to our friendship as a place. But in the grind of medical school rotations nearly 30 years ago, a flower bed between a parking lot and the building that hosted the internal medicine wards became “the friendship.” That’s what our friendship felt like then: A scruffy patch of nature wedged between the workplace and the comings and goings of daily life. “Come to the friendship!” one of us would say when the other was agitated or idle. We would walk out, sit there for a while, and then get back to work a little sharper, braver, and, some would say, more obnoxious for it.
Research has long established that friendship blossoms where people with similar interests spend time together, share meaningful and intense tasks, face uncertainty, and need each other’s help.1 Francesco’s and my workplace ticked all those boxes, and soon our friendship wasn’t confined to it. In the friendship, we jumped between reviewing a procedure we had just seen and dissecting failed romances, sharing career dreams and making plans for the weekend. It was the first of a handful of work friendships without which I would not be writing this essay, do the work I do, or be who I am. It was also the beginning of a quest to understand friendship at work and what it takes to make those friendships work.
The workplace can be fertile ground for budding friendships because of the proximity that forming friendships requires. But growing friendships at work can be problematic. The philosopher George Santayana wrote that friends are the people “with which one can be human” — that is, a complex and conflicted person, not just the competent occupant of a role. By definition, friendship challenges the norms of instrumentality and impersonality in force at many workplaces. For that same reason, if nurtured properly, friendship can be a potent humanizing influence for ourselves and our colleagues.
It’s no wonder that as work becomes more technological and workplaces more remote, there has been renewed interest in friendship. Hybrid work might make us more productive, but it also risks making us less connected.2 It deprives us of the serendipitous encounters and idle time with coworkers that could turn into life-changing friendships. Most exhortations to return to the office focus on its sociality.3 They cast it as a place to forge deeper bonds than we can create on Slack or Zoom. Those bonds, scholars have argued, foster the resilience and creativity that we need to thrive in a turbulent world of work.4
People’s experiences, however, are more mixed.5 Not everyone trusts that befriending coworkers is wise. Some worry that friendship will interfere with professional judgment. Others prefer to keep their personal and work lives distinct. Likewise, research highlights both benefits and drawbacks of work friendships. It shows that they can help us feel safer, braver, and freer at work — but they can also make us feel conflicted, cautious, and constrained. (See “Understanding the Three Elements of Friendship at Work.”)
Gaining those benefits and avoiding those burdens depends on our capacity to forge healthy friendships. To do that, it helps to view work friendships as a welcome patch of nature, as my old friend and I once did. But the best ones grow beyond an unkempt secret garden that we take refuge in. They become carefully cultivated grounds that sustain our selves at work.
What Friends Are (For)
Francesco and I are still friends, even though our careers no longer intersect. Once we took different paths for our specializations, I found it harder to enjoy work. I missed the comfort, the camaraderie, and even the competition. I also found it easier to begin a transition from medicine to management academia. These days, he helps people survive physical illness; I, the intangible malaise of the workplace. Friendship, it turns out, will protect you against both.
Having friends keeps you healthier. In a densely referenced 2023 advisory about an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy estimated that its health consequences cost American companies $154 billion annually. Friendship lowers the risk of fatal diseases and prolongs life expectancy. In all species that form similar bonds — humans are not the only ones — friendship confers advantage. Individuals who have friends are more likely to live longer and reproduce.
If you have friends at work, “you are going to be less likely to want to leave; you are going to want to show up. You will probably accomplish more,” Julianna Pillemer, a New York University professor who studies work friendships, told me. Close relationships are crucial to well-being and success, she noted, and yet she has found that “people have polarized views. They really want to make friends at work or they say, ‘I don’t go there.’”
The reason, Pillemer explained, is that “going there” requires crossing a line or, more precisely, erasing the line between personal and professional. Concerns for mutual gain, goal achievement, and return on investment must be put aside, and so must power differences. At best, friendship is voluntary and reciprocal without being transactional.
The healthiest work friendships can be critical ballast for leaders, keeping them grounded when their position threatens to isolate them, and flattery or ego to blind them. “My friends are a stabilizer,” tech entrepreneur Fred Mazzella told me, explaining how friends helped him through his journey from anonymous start-upper to successful tech leader to highly visible entrepreneurship advocate. The cofounder of BlaBlaCar, a mobility platform and one of only 25 “unicorns” founded in France, recalled the days in which he was building the company. “I was in the media as much as I could because I needed our platform to be known. And at some point, I realized that I had created two things: I had created a company and an image of myself, or at least an image of what I do.”
Mazzella had seen many entrepreneurs lose themselves in that reflection. “Since they work a lot — all the time, really — and maybe have a young family, they don’t have time to see their friends anymore. And they begin to think they are who the media say they are,” he explained. If he wanted to preserve his authenticity, Mazzella realized, he needed friends. “Work connects you to what you do. Friends connect you to who you are,” he remarked.
Friends help us stay true to our roots — our history, values, and idiosyncrasies — as we reach for professional goals. It was friends, after all, that Aristotle first described as holding up a mirror to ourselves. And they provide an anchor for those selves too. In my research on mobile managers and independent workers, I found that those who had friends felt better equipped to navigate the anxieties of nomadic careers and solitary work.6 Others have observed that friendships can provide a foundation of solidarity to resist indignity at work.
In short, good friends give us confidence, comfort, and courage. They shape our working lives and career dreams as much as, if not more than, our managers do. They help us show up as we are and imagine who we can become.7 Those benefits, however, come at a price.
Friends Without Benefits
“Work friendships are wonderful, and they are hard work,” Pillemer told me. Her research with Wharton professor Nancy Rothbard has shown that the demands of friendship regularly conflict with the demands of our work roles.8
Neglect a friend, and you might lose them. But attending to a friend might not always be the best way to use your time and energy at work. Furthermore, friendships can silence us. Many involve what scholars call “navigating to commonality” — smoothing differences and avoiding disagreement. That tendency can deprive us of feedback we need to hear, erode the quality of group decisions, and bring our fairness into question.
Spending time with our friends to the exclusion of others, or depending solely on them for support, can isolate us. Cliques are almost always detrimental and can be particularly counterproductive when we need a nudge in a new direction. Research shows that new ideas and career opportunities are most likely to come from weak ties — relationships outside our closest circles. Similarly, the cocoon of friendship might protect us too much. In unreliable institutions, people often turn to friends as a buffer against factors that harm their well-being and performance. In that way, friends can make us more tolerant of workplace cultures that we should try to change or leave, such as cultures of overwork. With friends around, our life at work becomes more comfortable. And comfortable people, at times, make poor change agents.
Precisely because it blurs the boundary between the personal and the professional, friendship can breed confusion, caution, and conformity. If those make friendship hard for corporate coworkers, some argue that they make it fatal for entrepreneurs. One study found that companies started by friends were more likely to fail because their cofounders were too cautious to exchange critical feedback and too comfortable to seek help outside.
“Mentors advised me to never start a business with a friend,” Mazzella told me. That warning did not suit him. A Stanford computer science graduate and aspiring founder, Mazzella decided to leave Silicon Valley and return to Paris, where he and his best friend started the company that would become BlaBlaCar. But soon, the friends faced an impasse. Their unequal commitment to the startup was fostering resentment and ineffective leadership. Eventually, Mazzella took the lead and a larger share of the company, but their friendship endured.
Their story reminded me of Pillemer and Rothbard’s observation that not all friendships hold people back, harm organizations, or fray under the pressure of work. Only fragile ones do. Some friendships do begin and end at work, but others grow beyond it. The best work friendships eventually lose the qualification and become just … friendships.
The admonition should not be to avoid forming friendships at work but to make stronger ones. The question is how to turn a friendly coworker into a good work friend. To begin, it helps to recognize friendship as an organic process that we can assist but can’t force.
How to Cultivate Friendship
Friendship is a natural product of our species’ fundamental need and desire to belong. And friendship is an accomplishment, too: a product of our choices and efforts. Both aspects of friendship remind me of the olive trees of my ancestral countryside that grow in sunstruck soil, take years to bear fruit, and, when mature, provide shade and joy to children who climb them. You can’t build one of those. But you can cultivate one, if you care.
What follows is a blueprint for how to care for and grow work friendships over three stages. Use it to reflect on your own friendships, if you wish, and then go and discuss it with your friends. The sooner and more frequently you do it, the better. Until you can be honest about how your relationship affects your work and vice versa, your friendship will remain fragile and might cause conflict, demand caution, and isolate you. Discussing how to nourish it, make space for it, and share it, conversely, will make your friendship stronger.
Helping the seed of friendship sprout. Sometimes we find the seedling of a friendship at work, like when we notice a coworker who seems to share our outlook on life. Other times, we plant it there — say, when we hire a friend. Some budding friends are peers at work, whereas others are not. In any case, you must prepare the soil.
The composition of fertile ground for friendship is shared activities, common interests, and comparable challenges. It’s not enough to do something together, like working on the same project or for the same client, if you do not share similar views on, and similar struggles in, that work. Furthermore, friendship grows best on egalitarian ground, hence a degree of equality needs to be established alongside commonality.
Those were the circumstances under which Christina Anagnostopoulou, an executive in the pharma industry, found a close friend in the workplace. “We met working on the same team. We were peers,” she told me. “My friend is an expert, detail-oriented, serious, and focused. I am a generalist, easygoing, always doing 10 things at once. We were executives in a formal, competitive, complex environment. We both loved work and felt a need for lightness, for laughter. We shared, without judgment, the pain and failures that were never discussed in the office.”
High-pressure work environments might incline us to seek friends as well. “Ours can be a dreary industry,” a banker told me, “but having friends around when you are pulling all-nighters, dealing with a difficult boss, or working on something you have no idea about makes it much easier and more fun.”
In her book on the evolution and functions of friendship, Lydia Denworth describes how gifts are a hallmark of friendship across many cultures.9 When we approach a potential friend in the workplace, we might offer a croissant, a word of advice, or some gossip. These gifts represent the nutrients that the seeds of friendship need to grow: attention, candor, and, most importantly, time. The more uptight and pressured your workplace is, the more likely it is that you will see as a potential friend someone who treats you as an equal, gives you their time and attention, and seems to want nothing other than yours in return. Lack of time, conversely, makes friendships wither.
A budding work friendship also needs protective boundaries that acknowledge its intersection with work as well as its differentiation from it. You need to speak up when you need space, are disappointed, or have critical feedback. You need to be clear about when and how to put the friendship or the work aside deliberately.
A senior manager at a global consumer goods company learned that when he hired his best friend. After a difficult six months, they realized that they had to cultivate new relational boundaries. “I insisted on trying different ways to have a transparent discussion and exchange feedback about work and our relationship, and the more we opened up, the more the barrier disappeared,” the manager told me. The two also agreed not to speak about work when they met outside of it, and they stuck to that deal.
Openness makes it easier to set boundaries, and boundaries make it easier to be open, minimizing conflict if not preventing it entirely, which allows your friendship to set roots and unfurl its first leaves.
Making space for friendship to grow. Once your friendship has sprouted, it needs enough space and support to grow, flower, and bear fruit. Time matters at this stage, too — not just as a signal of interest but as an expression of commitment.
Few friendships survive asymmetry in how much time each person expects to spend with the other. One study showed that remote coworkers develop friendships only if their contact is frequent enough to let them feel connected beyond the requirements of work. The virtual contact, however, must be synchronous. A phone conversation is better than a text, unless we are texting back and forth at the same time. We need friends to be there with us, even online.
Entrepreneur Mazzella took time to stay connected with friends despite years of 80-hour workweeks. “I would often call a friend, inviting them to dinner around 9 p.m., when I took a break,” he told me. “If they were available, we would connect over a meal. If not, at least it was an occasion to discuss for a few minutes on the phone.” Those dinners and conversations were a physical expression of the friends’ commitment to each other.
Temporal and physical space — spending time somewhere you enjoy, such as on a hiking trail — makes friendship viable. Psychological space makes it stronger. Making that space involves committing to getting to know each other well and helping each other grow. Like a stake that supports a young tree, those commitments are friends’ stakes in mutual development.
Sadaf Hosseini, a senior manager at an international organization, told me that her work friends are “truer friends than those I have found in other contexts,” and she pointed to their honest feedback as one of the ways in which good friends help each other grow. “They have the capability of calling me on my bulls**t. That’s hard to find, as friends usually close their eyes on your weaknesses and sometimes even lie, just not to hurt you,” she said. This observation captures a crucial difference between fragile and stronger friendships: The former just reassure you; the latter challenge you, too. They keep you focused on your dreams and accountable for doing your best.
We build stronger work friendships by helping each other see how a personal issue might get in the way of work or how work can stifle who we are, and helping each other do something about it. The trunk of friendship has become strong enough when it lets us stay grounded and reach out freely. This is the point at which a friendship begins to bear fruit that nourishes two selves.
Letting others share its shade and fruits. Large trees are often visible features of a landscape, and so are strong friendships in the workplace. Once your friendship has grown deep roots and used the space to flourish, you will need to attend to its impact at work and avoid exclusivity and cliquishness. At this stage, you must ensure that your friendship is hospitable and does not become a hideout that stops you from engaging others.
I have witnessed hospitable friendships frequently among independent workers. Those professionals often rely on friends in their line of work for emotional and practical support. And yet they are mindful that they need to help each other tap into the weak ties that can help improve their work or find new work: the writer friends who set up a group to critique each other’s work, inviting peers from outside their circle; the consultants who asked one or two colleagues they did not know well to join them on a project; or the trainers who brought their respective clients together for a retreat to share best practices. They were all doing the same thing: opening up the protection and resources of their work friendship to others who might bring them new insight, a sense of community, and value.
Opening your friendship up is even more important in an organization, where the temptation might be the opposite — to seclude the friendship and keep it aside. “Sometimes you want to show that you are not offering preferential treatment to your friends, so you end up treating them worse than a stranger,” a corporate lawyer told me. That strategy, however, often backfires, creating suspicions that something inappropriate is afoot, even when it is not.
To counter the concerns about favoritism or cliquishness that friendship can create in work groups, it is not enough to be discreet. You must find ways to share the fruits of your friendship with the group. The same lawyer told me that discussing how to stay close yet professional with her friend made her question the need for so much distance with other coworkers. “Most of the time at work, we treat each other like robots. We fail to see the individual behind an email or a phone call,” she said. Her friendship made her resolve to treat everyone with the same care.
Friends who have done the work I’m describing here can become role models of openness. Declan, one of my closest work friends, is a master at this. I love to have him on my side on delicate projects and in mundane meetings. He is fierce and funny. He will have my back, and he won’t let me hide. He will be sensitive to my concerns and challenging with my shortcomings, and I with his. And we will be all that in public: letting everyone else know that care and honesty are what we expect and cherish in our line of work, and that they can join in.
Seen as a source of vitality to generously share, friendship becomes more than a way to survive a demanding workplace. It is a way to reject and challenge its norms of distance and instrumentality and begin humanizing it, making it more inclusive and engaging.
Don’t Fear Making Friends
We are all better off for having access to the grounded freedom that friendship provides. That we so often fear it or try to hide it at work says more about workplace norms than it says about our friends. People in circumstances in which work is personal and close relationships are vital often remind me that not having friends at work is potentially disastrous.
Strong friendships are developmental for those involved and for those around them. They help everyone grow more than they could have alone. They make us feel that someone cares for our self and for our learning — rather than just for our skills and performance. Being dedicated to cultivating them will help you realize the true value of friendship: making us more secure, free, and generous.
Seen that way, friendship is not the antithesis of work relations but its expansion. It provides a template for the kinds of relationships that make a workplace a community. Reflecting on a career in professional services, an executive told me: “I have done my best work, my most creative work, my most impactful work with friends. Organizations desperately need to bring humanity back into their cultures. Friendship is a way to do that.”
Fragile work friendships will fade once a hard project ends or a friend leaves the company. Strong friendships born in the workplace often outlast those transitions. We take them with us because they become, as philosophers have argued and neuroscientists have shown, a part of us. And they keep us human and growing at work and beyond.
My friend Francesco and I have done a decent job at that. We have shared the moments that friends are meant to be there for — breakups and weddings, funerals and births, rejections and promotions. We have kept each other’s secrets and our conversation running. “Did you bring the friendship?” one of us will ask every time we meet. “It’s there!” The other will answer, pointing to a flowerpot. (There must be dirt.) More confined yet just as green, the friendship is still there — to witness who we once were, who we have chosen to be, and who we might still become.
- T.M. Newcomb, “The Acquaintance Process” (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961).
- C.N. Hadley and M. Mortensen, “Are Your Team Members Lonely?” MIT Sloan Management Review 62, no. 2 (winter 2021): 36-40.
- G. Petriglieri, “In Praise of the Office,” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020, https://hbr.org.
- G.R. Kellerman and M. Seligman, “Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work With Resilience, Creativity, and Connection — Now and in an Uncertain Future” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023).
- L. Gratton, “Why You Should Make Friends at Work,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Oct. 13, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.
- G. Petriglieri, J.L. Petriglieri, and J.D. Wood, “Fast Tracks and Inner Journeys: Crafting Portable Selves for Contemporary Careers,” Administrative Science Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 2018): 479-525.
- M.G. Franco, “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends” (New York: Penguin Random House, 2022).
- J. Pillemer and N.P. Rothbard, “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” Academy of Management Review 43, no. 4. (October 2018): 635-660.
- L. Denworth, “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020).