Once upon a time, we had jobs for life, which meant colleagues for life. A character in Ricky Gervais’ The Office, said: “The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with.You spend more time with them than your friends and family, but probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.”
That assessment may be even more accurate today: according to the psychologist Adam Grant; fewer and fewer of us have any close friends at work. It’s worse in America where, between the 1980s and 2000s, the proportion of people who said they had a good work friend slid from half to less than a third. But the situation’s hardly wonderful in Britain, where 42% of us don’t.
It’s easy to guess why. Once, we had jobs for life, which meant colleagues for life, plus company events for the family. Now, writes Grant; “work is a more transactional place. We go to the office to be efficient, not to form bonds.” Transience – along with telecommuting and extreme busyness – is poison to friendship. The guy at the desk next to yours might be gone in two months. Or you might be gone. Or, if you’re a victim of the sinister cult of hot-desking, you might not even have a desk. Why bother asking him to the pub?
This might not matter if we were also spending fewer hours at work, with time to forge friendships outside, but the opposite is true, which means the worst of both worlds: more work, with less social nourishment to show for it. And friendships sown in office soil were fragile shoots to begin with, as Mark Vernon explains in his book, The Meaning Of Friendship, because the logic of the workplace is opposed to that of making friends. Work is about getting things done, so your value is inevitably linked to what you contribute. A close friendship, by contrast, is valuable precisely because it’s not transactional, in any measurable way. It’s a commitment to be there regardless. This tension leads to awkwardness, as when an office friend’s shoddy work makes your work harder, or when he or she is suddenly your boss.
Assuming you can’t – or don’t want to – just quit office culture altogether, it’s worth resisting the urge to isolate yourself socially there. All the research suggests that more work friendships means better health and a sense of fulfilment. True, this means staying open to interaction with annoying people, too: the colleague who takes a single party invite as a cue to unburden his deepest woes, daily, or the nosy one who’s desperate to hear yours. Yet even annoying people can sometimes be enriching. Working from home can be lonely; you might get annoyed with extra-loud phone talkers, but watching daytime TV means you can miss even their absence. Even fractious social connections are connections. There is a lot for to be said for worjking in an office environment; sure, we’re all treading the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day, but even that’s preferable to each treading our own, alone.