corporate culture

Keys to Employee Engagement: 10. A Best Friend

My daughter works at the headquarters of Roots, an iconic Canadian fashion retailer.  She called a few weeks ago about some questions she was asked during her first few months. For the most part, she understood the reasons behind the questions, but there was one that puzzled her: Do you have a best friend at work?

I explained she was probably being given a questionnaire about employee engagement, and that having a best friend at work is one indicator of engagement.

We make friends in so many ways: school, clubs, and being neighbours to mention just a few. One way of thinking is that schools and clubs take you through common experiences that you share with classmates. Friendships formed through clubs and neighbours are probably driven by common interests. In all cases, the shared interest or experience takes place over an extended period of time, through which people can gradually reveal themselves to others and steadily build bonds.

The same is likely true also for work. There is both the shared experience of working for the same company but also, in the case of engaged employees, a shared commitment to the company’s mission.

Headhunter, Recruiter, Manufacturing, FriendFriendship is a relationship that develops along a scale that goes something like this:

  1. Stranger
  2. First-Name basis
  3. Acquaintance 
  4. Indirect friend
  5. Direct friend
  6. Close friend
  7. Best friend

In an organizational setting, new employees first encounter people as strangers.  As they’re introduced to the organization, they get to know some people on a first-name basis. They might find that they share something in common with one or two of these people, which leads to a warmer relationship. I think you get the idea of how this can progress.

The more similarities people have and the more positive validation they get from each other, the more they develop mutual trust and they can move up the relationship scale.

The way I interpret the reason behind this question in the Q12 is that being a best friend means there is considerable mutual trust and information sharing between the two halves of the friendship. Trust is one of the underlying elements in high-performing teams. The trust is gradually built through shared experiences – usually with positive outcomes.  However, in an organizational context, being a best friend probably means finding other connections besides work – common interests, such as sports or being a fan of a sports team.

My father was in the armed forces, and we moved around the country. Along the way, my parents formed many friendships with fellow families from the service – enduring relationships that spanned decades.  It was a great role model for me to follow.

Playing a sport can be a great equalizer: the organizational hierarchy has nothing to do with skill level in sports. I used to play squash, and found it was a fun way to forge relationships with people in other departments in the organization. For me, it was squash; for others it could be hockey or golf or something else. You (hopefully) have some fun together but also you see others in a way that goes beyond their role in an organization. You’re letting down your guard while you’re doing this outside activity, but it can make it easier to approach a fellow employee when you need a favour or assistance with something.  It can also promote cross-functional collaboration.

Personally, I’d like to see this question in the Q12 expressed more like “how many fellow employees fall into the different classifications on the friendship scale above”, or maybe “what is the highest degree of friendship you have with a fellow employee?” I like to see something other than a yes or no answer and something more easily quantified.

For a company like Roots, I think the founders want to be able to attract talented people on the basis of a vibrant corporate culture. Measuring employee engagement is just one way to put some metrics on culture, and engagement has also been demonstrated to have high correlation with customer satisfaction and overall corporate success.

As you can probably imagine, having close friendships at work can build employee loyalty. Working with people you like and respect helps build morale and, when morale is high, employees feel more comfortable taking on new challenges.  Those challenges usually also lead a company to greater opportunities.