What’s in a friend?

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So, here we are at the end of a long, hard, painful journey. Life’s returning to normal. But will we bounce back?

Emerging data suggests we have the resilience needed. Studies tracking our psychological distress during the pandemic show that while it increased at key points, each time life resumed normality, emotions followed suite. We felt better.

This is good news. It foretells a post-pandemic boost. All well and good, right? Only not quite…

Because a wellness resurgence doesn’t necessarily mean a complete recovery. Bouncing back is common after national disasters - however, our feelings rarely reach their previous state. In this case, wellbeing has indeed lifted, but not to pre-pandemic levels. So, almost normal, but not quite.

Research has shown up to a third of us have a ‘best friend’ at work. Photograph: iStock

What can we do, in the light of this, to help ourselves, our friends, family, and colleagues? One way is through such connections themselves. There is a convincing body of evidence that ‘connecting’ aids wellbeing. Thus, we are advised to connect “with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.” (New Economics Foundation.)

Connecting in the workplace matters too.

Research has shown up to a third of us have a ‘best friend’ at work. Studies suggest those with best friends are more engaged, more productive and give better customer service. Apparently, they have greater wellbeing, even reduced susceptibility to injury. Workplace friendships have also been linked to enhanced job satisfaction and performance.

Of course, correlation is not causation. One can’t draw a line between specific friendships and organisational outcomes. But such associations are intriguing for managers. So, should they be more mindful of this when designing the post-pandemic workplace?

I say yes. Still, that might not be easy.

French thinker, Albert Camus, characterised a friend as someone who doesn’t lead, or follow, but rather walks beside you. Yet work environments put us into leader-led hierarchies, thereby reducing the pool of potential friends.

Moreover, the pandemic has complicated this further.

A clear casualty of Covid for me was the opportunity to connect with colleagues and advance work-related friendships. Pre-existing relationships moved online swiftly and worked smoothly. But with newer colleagues it was more difficult. We lacked the same accrued understanding. Connecting was harder.

Samantha Peters: "Studies show friendship, once established, can be equally effective online and off."

It’s often assumed that online relationships replace face-to-face ones with poor quality, superficial interaction. But studies show friendship, once established, can be equally effective online and off. Moreover, online interaction can support and enhance offline relationships.

Nonetheless, my own experience shows we can’t take this for granted. Everyone I know is acknowledging the challenge of ensuring healthy social interaction in new hybrid workplaces. Friendship is one small part of the social panoply we must consider.

Nelson Mandela once said that we can build good societies with just common humanity and friendship. If we can build good societies with friendship, maybe we can build good organisations too.

But we’re probably going to need a new kind of architecture for that. Maybe even a different kind of organisation altogether.

Do I know what this new architecture will look like? No. Will it be interesting to work it out? Absolutely.

International Day of Friendship is 30 July: un.org/en/observances/friendship-day

Dr Samantha Peters is Chair of BSC Being Well Together Committee


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