AN EMPLOYEE has a fulfilling job at a good company. All that is missing are friends. Here’s how to decide whether this is truly a problem and if so, how to resolve it. ROB WALKER replies to one of his readers on workplace friendships.
Q: I have an interesting job with a company that makes me proud. But even after six years, I don’t have any friends at work. There are a few people I exchange pleasantries with, but no lunch or coffee mates. This had never happened to me in my three decades of working. I still have close friends from all of my previous jobs. My department is small and isolated from the rest of the company; our work doesn’t allow for much socialising. What’s more, I don’t feel a connection with any of my three direct colleagues. I’ve joined a sports club at the company, which has been fun but hasn’t yielded the social bonds I had hoped it would. Is this okay? Is it enough to enjoy the work, but not the environment? Should I look for a job where I’d feel more comfortable? I have a family and plenty of friends outside the office, but it is not fun to feel alienated for 40-plus hours a week.
A: Having some degree of social bonding at work can be good for both your career and your well-being. At the same time, I think many people overrate workplace friendships. Yes, it is best if everyone gets along, but expecting colleagues to be genuine friends may set the bar too high. The point of work isn’t socialising, it is work. Still, some elements of your situation do seem a little extreme.
Most notably that you say you feel not just uncomfortable, but even “alienated”. That’s such a harsh word that it seems almost at odds with the rest of your description. Morra Aarons-Mele, the author of Hiding in the Bathroom, which is, in part, a career and workplace guide for the introverted or socially anxious, wrote: “Here’s what’s really important at work: feeling good at work. “If that, for you, is having people to eat lunch with, then that’s important.”
It can change at different points in a career, she added. When you’re in a new city or just new to the workforce, for instance, work mates may be more of a priority. It doesn’t seem that you have trouble making friends generally. But given your situation, you could experiment with some of the “baby-step strategies” that a socially anxious person might use, she said. Pick the one person you’re most comfortable with and reach out with some simple gesture that signals openness and interest, such as: “I’m going to go out and get a coffee. Would you like one?” The idea is to take a small step and see where it leads.
Similarly, you might give some thought to what you mean by friendship in the workplace and whether you can define it more simply. If your deeper social needs are met outside work, maybe on the job you could just aim for a slightly heightened version of the cordiality that already exists. If you like your job, it seems a drastic step to leave it because you don’t have coffee mates. It is not as if you can somehow guarantee that you’ll have that in a new gig.
I’m an advocate of always staying open to new opportunities. If you really feel alienated, it is worth seeing what’s out there that might make you happier. But it is also worth seeing if you can find little ways to slightly enhance your relationships with a colleague or two and see how that feels.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.