Fast Track: With friends like these

In a cut-throat workplace, chums are harder to come by for graduates than in their student days.
Click to follow
For anyone joining the graduate intake of a large company, a brand new social milieu is supposedly something to look forward to. Day after day, you'll be surrounded by a group of like-minded young people, half of whom will be of the opposite sex. Play it carefully and it could be like student halls all over again, only this time with the kind of cash to do things in style. But does it really work out like that?

Will, a recent graduate who joined the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche in 1996, didn't think it would. "I expected to keep all the same friends I'd made at college and just go to work every day, where they would all be accountants and therefore incredibly dull." But the accountants surprised him. "For one thing, they're very conscious of their public image and some of them feel a duty to disprove it. I can honestly say I've been on longer, harder benders with my work colleagues than I did as a student."

Mark, a college contemporary of Will's who won a trainee position with the management consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers, confirms that he sees his friend less frequently these days. But he points out the negative side of befriending colleagues. Bonds formed in the workplace generally tend to be shallow. "It's always seemed strange that I spend far more social time with my colleagues than with my other friends, yet I still don't know an awful lot about most of them." It's all too easy, he maintains, to feel you have no choice but to become involved. Before you know it, the weekend is the only time you'refree of work. "There is a false camaraderie manufactured by nights out at places you wouldn't want to go to, with people you wouldn't want to go with."

It could be argued that the social culture during the first year of university is not dissimilar. The difference is, according to Mark, that students do not share the same level of superficiality. Rather, they get worked up about "honesty" and "integrity", and spend much time and energy thinking about what someone is "really" like. In the workplace, there is a more pragmatic approach. All that matters is what you do, and communication between colleagues - whether in the office or in the local bar - tends to reflect this.

According to Professor Cooper, an occupational psychologist and the author of Balancing Work, Family and Life (pounds 8.99, Kogan Page), there is a reason for this. The depth of thinking so typical of students, he says, may be equally important in the workplace - "only in a different, more depressing way. We are always wondering why the boss said that, or why a colleague is talking about that, or why we were not invited to a certain meeting. Our response is often to reassert our professional identity rather than our personality. In this way, job insecurity prevents authentic relationships developing."

Dr Marilyn Davidson, from the Department of Science and Technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), adds that because job insecurity is at a peak, "the only people on whom it's safe to take out one's frustrations are colleagues and subordinates. These are people who might have been your friends and are now in direct competition with you. It's quite possible, therefore, that you'll be more hostile than friendly to them."

Professor Cooper believes lack of bonding between colleagues is an increasing problem. "Twenty or thirty years ago, work was largely an extension of school. You might have found an entire tier of management, for example, who went to the same public school or Oxbridge, or an entire school leaving year going to work in the same factory. But in Britain today, most organisations have massively downsized and we work the longest hours in Europe. There just isn't enough time to form relationships." In fact, he says, even if you're out on the town with colleagues every night, heavy workloads mean the chances are you'll be talking about work .

In addition, claims the occupational psychologist Dr Mark Parkinson, new figures show that at least half the graduate intake into large organisations currently leave after a period of two years. "No wonder they don't enter the workplace looking to make buddies for life."

Dr Terry Kellard, of Warwick Consultants Limited, believes office design is surprisingly relevant when it comes to making chums at work. Contrary to popular opinion, he claims, open-plan doesn't necessarily encourage interaction. "Studies show that rather than interacting well, people who work in open-plan offices instinctively put up clear barriers to create their own territory." Consequently, your neighbour has very little chance of becoming your new best friend.

In recent years, however, many companies have gone some way to meeting these concerns. The manufacturing conglomerate Unilever takes on around 400 graduates each year in the UK and is one of a few companies periodically cited as having a high "sociability" factor. According to its spokesperson Steve Milton, this is partly because most of these positions are the fabled jobs-for-life which many believe to be extinct, resulting in little or no competition. Also, he says, "We try to take on the sort of people who will get on with each other - outward-looking, well-travelled people."

Increasing numbers of companies, including Heineken and Philips, are following suit. After all, they claim, having a sociable work-force benefits employers. Apart from stimulating creativity because it fosters teamwork, information-sharing and a spirit of openness to new ideas, it encourages people to go beyond the limits of their job if they can find ways of helping their colleagues. In turn, the idea is that interpersonal skills are learned quickly and sincerely. "Of course, you realise that we don't sell beer," a marketing manager of Heineken was recently quoted as saying. "We sell emotional sociability."

But there are also drawbacks. Poor performance may be tolerated since it is hard to discipline someone whom you see as a friend. Additionally, highly sociable environments are often characterised by an exaggerated concern for consensus. After all, ensuring that everyone is on board can mean searching for the best compromise and not necessarily the best solution.

But, remarks Julie Williams, an occupational health assistant, "many people don't want to make friends for life at work. They like to separate the domestic sphere and the work sphere. That way, they feel their life is in neat categories."

Back in Fleet Street, Will agrees, deciding that there's nothing wrong with just having "close acquaintances" at work. "Anything closer you can leave to your marriage," he says. "Programmes such as This Life have given the impression that all professionals are ambitious, go-getting back-stabbers. But what you actually find is that most people are simply killing time - I know I am - and we all want a little company while we're doing that."

Some names have been changed