The friendship factory

Work mates are our best mates, and firms will prosper if they create a sense of community
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The Independent Online

Offices have long been hotbeds for romance. A recent survey from the secretarial consultancy Office Angels, revealed that over 50 per cent of people meet their long-term partners through their job, and one in 10 have had a fling with someone at work. Less well known, however, is that the vast majority of our friends are now made at work and that this is a key contributor to job satisfaction. A new study from careers consultancy Sanders & Sydney claims friendship, like pay and benefits, is important in binding us to an organisation.

Offices have long been hotbeds for romance. A recent survey from the secretarial consultancy Office Angels, revealed that over 50 per cent of people meet their long-term partners through their job, and one in 10 have had a fling with someone at work. Less well known, however, is that the vast majority of our friends are now made at work and that this is a key contributor to job satisfaction. A new study from careers consultancy Sanders & Sydney claims friendship, like pay and benefits, is important in binding us to an organisation.

"Employees tell us that the workplace community has influenced their decision to join an organisation, to stay with one, and to commit themselves more to their work," says Sally Davis, director at Sanders & Sydney. "Three-quarters of res- pondents say work comes second only to family in their priorities - before other key dri- vers like time and other friends."

The report, Friendship Works, attributes this shift to the breakdown of traditional environments, the increase in divorce and single-person households, and self-centred urban living. "We are increasingly reliant on the workplace to provide our sense of belonging," explains Ms Davis.

Research from the Center for Demographic Policy in the US shows that our view of the community has also changed. For centuries, it was a question of proximity to other people - "the community of place". This has now been replaced by "the community of association" - people creating a sense of belonging by meeting people with shared interests, which is most likely to happen at work.

Today's long-hours culture is another factor. We now work by far the longest hours in Europe, and it follows that the people we're with the most will be those with whom we form the strongest bonds. "While employees once went home and moaned about work to their families, today they are more likely to rush into work to moan about the shortcomings of their partner," says Judi James, an adviser to the Industrial Society.

According to Friendship Works, companies should use office camaraderie to their own advantage. "We urge organisations to consider proactive strategies to strengthen workplace communities," says Ms Davis. "These not only create a better atmosphere but result in more motivated staff, improved team working and better retention. There are many ways of achieving this, from introducing a more relaxed dress code to improving the design of work and social areas."

AWG, the former water utility Anglian Water, is one company where friendship is part of the culture. "It is part of our vision to develop a sense of community in all departments - with a focus on fun and socialising," says Mike Keohane, director of human resources. The result? "An extremely low staff turnover and the happiest bunch of workers you've seen."

"Employees say working in such an environment is enjoyable," agrees David Clutterbuck, director of mentoring company Clutterbuck Associates. "In addition, it stimulates creativity because it fosters teamwork, information-sharing and a spirit of openness to new ideas. And it encourages people to go beyond the limits of their job if they can find ways of helping their colleagues."

However, there are potential pitfalls. "There's a risk poor performance will be tolerated," says Mr Clutterbuck. "Disciplining someone you see as a friend is, after all, difficult. Second, highly sociable environments often focus too much on the need for consensus; sometimes it is the best compromise, rather than the best solution, that is sought. Worse still, high-sociability organisations can develop political cliques which circumvent or undermine the organisational process."

Also of concern is that perks like gyms and on-site restaurants, designed to create "work buddies", will lead to people spending too much time in the office. Lucy Daniels, at the Work- Life research centre, says: "We are trying to develop a national recognition that staying at work too long is bad for health and bad for business."

Richard Reeves, director of futures at the Industrial Society, agrees: "It is the sign of a progressive employer to introduce anything that makes workers' lives more pleasurable. But it is a defective employer that expects workers to give up their lives."

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