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Why businesses need to help employees build friendships

Peer coaching nurtures connections that make employees want to stay with the company.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations faced a difficult challenge they were unequipped to solve: increasing isolation and loneliness among their staff. “Close work relationships boost employee satisfaction by 50%, and people with a best friend at work are seven times as likely as others to engage fully in their work,” PwC reported in a 2019 study. “However, in the workplace today, the opportunities for interactions and relationships can be reduced by new models of flexible working.” In a survey conducted at the time, only half of respondents agreed that their employers had successfully developed a robust virtual social platform.

The past few years have made this worse. At many companies, the entire staff quickly became remote, and the days of team lunches, onsite gyms, happy hours, and chats in the hallway disappeared. Suddenly, that company culture ceased to exist. Even as some people returned to the office many weeks or months later, many others did not. As companies institute remote or hybrid working environments on a permanent basis, there are fewer opportunities to build relationships with colleagues in person.

The loss of work friendships is likely one reason so many people are choosing to leave their jobs, as CNBC reported. And among those who stay, success and creativity take a hit. In a recent study, Yasin Rofcanin, a professor of management at the University of Bath in the UK, and a group of colleagues found that friendship between coworkers is the most crucial element for enhancing employee performance.

The isolation takes perhaps the biggest toll on mental and emotional health. Feelings of isolation are deeply intertwined with stress and anxiety. Without other people to lean on, it can be much more difficult for colleagues to find the resiliency they need to face each workday.

In its 2022 Workforce Purpose Index, the peer coaching platform Imperative explored the state of work relationships. Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed said they are finding it difficult to make work friends, and more than half (57%) said their managers are not helping. But there’s also good news. The vast majority (87%) of workers said they’re willing to put more time into developing these relationships.

Developing meaningful connections

Amid the current challenges, there are steps organizations can take to facilitate and encourage the formation of work relationships. One of the key methods for empowerment is peer coaching, a process in which two colleagues help each other reflect on experiences, offer support, build skills, and match their work to their sense of purpose.

WebMD Health Services began to address the challenge with a group of more than 150 volunteers from across the company. Each took an assessment that helped them discover what gives them a strong sense of purpose—having an impact on their team, for example, or making a broad impact on society. Using algorithms, the Imperative platform then matched people with similar purpose drivers across the organization.

The pairs of workers met every two weeks for hourlong conversations over video, and the Imperative platform provided prompts in the form of questions participants could ask each other, opening up opportunities for the colleagues to engage in deeper conversations. For example, one read, “Reflect on the previous two weeks. What positive experience(s) have you had recently? Why were those meaningful to you?” Another was, “Where do you feel the most pressure right now? What happens to your well-being when you feel that pressure?”

“Having the time to step away from the craziness of back to back meetings and get to know a co-worker and learn what makes them fulfilled at work gave me new perspective and new goals to work towards,” one participant wrote in the feedback. Another wrote, “Happy to make a new work friend for life!”

These meetings have been going on for several months. So far, the results are in keeping with Imperative’s data, which shows that the overwhelming majority of participants (89%) in such programs develop meaningful connections.

WebMD Health Services plans to roll out the program more broadly across the organization.

Participants take action

The relationships that develop through this peer coaching program are not limited to the pairings. As part of each conversation, participants decide on an action that they will take before their next session together—reaching out to a colleague to form or strengthen a new relationship, for example, or strategizing ways to improve collaboration across different teams. The overwhelming majority of the time, the participants follow through, knowing that their peer coach will hold them accountable the next time they speak.

In the past, organizations may have counted on relationships to simply arise among staff members on their own. Those days are gone. 

Among the participants at WebMD Health Services, 38% of the actions taken have involved relationships. Of those actions, 24% involved relationships with team members, and 39% focused on relationships outside of the employee’s team. This kind of activity helps bust the silos separating departments, a problem that only grew for businesses during the pandemic. At WebMD Health Services, program participants and the project management unit developed new relationships with information technology and operations units.

Importantly, this program has enabled people of different backgrounds and perspectives to get to know each other, which is essential for building diversity and inclusion.

In the past, organizations may have counted on relationships to simply arise among staff members on their own. Those days are gone. To build the kinds of relationships that strengthen an organization—especially in an era of remote and hybrid work—businesses must be proactive. But executives and managers don’t have to take time out of their schedules to serve as matchmakers and force interactions. By giving employees the tools to develop relationships on their own, businesses can reap tremendous benefits—and build a stronger long-term future.

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