In Praise Of Befriending Your Work Pals

Because sure office friendships aren't without their complications. But who else would you cadge a tampon off?


by Lauren Bravo |
Published on

This week Millenials got a bad rep for their behaviour in office-hours (again), when research came out that 68 per cent of us would sacrifice a work friendship for a promotion. Or stab the mate they spend every Friday lunchtime afternoon in the pub with for a jump up the ladder.

But the headlines missed another stat buried in the research: that we ‘young professionals’ also value work mates way more than the baby boomer bosses above us. Over half of us said their work friendships were what kept them motivated.

All of which sums up the peril and complication that is having friends across the desk.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. Or, rather I’m going to rip off The Golden Woman of Glastonbury by saying: working nine to five, what a way to make some friendships.

I joined my company fresh out of uni and have now been there long enough to remember ignoring the previous World Cup with the same bunch of people, so I’m pretty qualified to praise workplace friendships. And praise them I do. Far from being a pale imitation of proper friendships, I think they deserve their own special category in the awards ceremony of life.

For starters, work throws you together with people you’d otherwise never spend time with. People with lifestyles and interests so totally different from yours that you could play siblings in a Wes Anderson film. I’ve had work friends with kids, work friends who voluntarily climb mountains and work friends who spend their weekends at real-life warehouse raves, and all have given me insight into a world beyond my own little doorstep.

Proper work friends are different to run-of-the-mill workmates, of course. There’s a brilliant point where you cross over the boundary from friendly colleague to genuine mate – usually around the first time you overshare a gynaecological anecdote, or they find you crying snottily in the fire escape after a client meeting – and suddenly you have an ally. It’s a wonderful relief, to catch someone’s eye across a boardroom and realise that they, too, think the Director of Whatever is a prick.

Horrible job situations can also act like a pressure cooker for friendship, simmering down all that stress into something tender and delicious. I can’t count the number of times I’ve kneaded the person at my elbow, chanting, ‘Nobody’s going to die… nobody’s going to die…’ as a project collapses before our eyes (this might not be so helpful if you work in a hospital, I’m sorry), or to frogmarch me to the pub and pour gin down my throat before I scream at someone important.

Work friendships can become more intimate than ‘proper’ ones much more quickly too, because they’re on such a frequent schedule. Sometimes it’s so hard to pin down busy friends that when you do see them IRL it can end up feeling like an exercise in catch-up box-ticking: ‘Job? Relationships? Family? Haircuts? Any other business? OK BYE.’

I can’t be the only one who finds themselves longing for more of those informal, close-range friendships where you can skip the politeness and cut straight to the warts-and-all stuff. We had it at school, at uni, sometimes in the luckiest of flat shares… but for most of us, there comes a point in your twenties where the only pals we see on a daily basis are the ones across the desk, so it’s no wonder they take on a special value.

You spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family, but probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk round on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day

There’s research to back it up too – last year a study by Lancaster University found that our colleagues are often the strongest friendships we have. And as Tim from The Office put it in a speech that will forever make me weep: ‘You spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family, but probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk round on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day. And so, obviously, when someone comes in who you have a connection with… it can mean a lot.’

That’s basically how I feel, minus all the snogging to Yazoo at the Christmas party.

When my best workmate left in April after three solid years of working side by side, I lost a confidante so patient that I now feel I can basically only replace her with a) a therapist or b) Siri. We filled our three years with a steady stream of chat, big and small, trivial and existential, SFW and very much NSFW. Now I tell all these things to the new bloke who sits next to me and pretend not to notice that he doesn’t give a shit.

All that said, even the warmest and most wonderful of work friendships can struggle to translate out of the office. I’ve never managed to coax a work friend to my birthday party, for example, and nor have I ever made it to one of theirs. I know juicy secrets about colleagues’ friends and partners that I’d definitely blurt out like a moron if I ever actually met them – which I probably won’t.

Plenty of people still seem to operate a ‘never the twain shall meet’ policy for work and non-work, which is fair enough when our careers are increasingly invading our personal lives (plus there’s the fear I might have accidentally developed a whole different ‘work personality’, like when Ross Gellar did all his lectures in a British accent).

Or on the flipside, there are the horror stories of parasitic workmates who are all too keen to jump into the rest of your life, too. After that one harmless drink they swiftly become playmates, then flatmates, then WHY IS SHE TEXTING MY MUM-mates and before long, leave you googling ‘voluntary redundancy’ and ‘disguises’ while you eat lunch hiding in the stationery cupboard.

Last year my friend Polly gratefully befriended a colleague on her first day at a new job and within weeks found herself roped in to covering for the friend while she faked sick days, stole things and had an affair with a married boss.

‘It was survival instinct – I just palled up with the first person who offered me a biscuit,’ she says. ‘Once I realised she was a dickhead it was too late. I’d been tarred with the same brush, and basically no one else spoke to me.’ (It’s OK, she has a new job now.)

Bringing existing pals into the work sphere is tricky, too. What if they’re awful and it’s really awkward? What if the job is awful and it’s really awkward? What if everyone likes them more than you and they start going for lunch without you and excluding you from Skype exchanges and… well, it’s really awkward?

Then there’s the even trickier territory of a finder’s fee, that odd corporate tradition where you essentially get rewarded for the luck of knowing an employable person. When I claimed a cash prize for introducing my wonderful flatmate to the company, I felt so weird and guilty about profiting from her that I immediately spaffed half of it buying her dinner at Roganic.

If you’re the boss it takes expert compartmentalising skills to bollock a person for turning up hungover one minute, and chummily discuss your weekend plans the next

And of course, everything gets tipped off kilter a bit when one of you is the boss. It takes expert compartmentalising skills to bollock a person for turning up hungover one minute, and chummily discuss your weekend plans the next – but it’s possible.

As far as I can tell, the key rules are these: remember that bosses need gossip and hilarious GIFS as much as the rest of us (maybe more), and if you’re on the other side, remember that not everyone cares as much about their job as you do. Or more to the point, not everyone is paid to care as much as you are.

Perhaps there are upsides to having no real friends at work. You’re probably far more productive, for one thing. You don’t get sucked into never-ending tea rounds. You can say what you like on social media without worrying who’s going to read it and report you. You get to eat lunch by yourself on a park bench, with a book.

When all the other areas of your life are a big, screeching mass of texts and plans and emotional demands, I can see that maybe there could be something pleasingly calm about going to work and talking to no one. But I think this in the same way I sometimes think I want to live a quiet life in a beach hut on the Isle of Skye – deep down I know it’s just stress talking, and I’d be fist-gnawingly bored in four hours flat.

Who would I cackle with and cadge tampons off? Who would tell me when I had pen on my face?

The truth is that office politics, promotions and Powerpoint aside, work friendships can be bloody brilliant. Mine are some of the greatest friends I have. And I say that honestly, not just because they’ll all be reading this.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @laurenbravo

Picture: Rory DCS

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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