DRMacIver's Notebook

Being friends with your coworkers

Being friends with your coworkers

From Talking About Machines by Julian Orr, page 35:

their [team] has developed personal bonds in addition to their professional association, including friendship outside the job. His narration reveals a division among technicians over the propriety of such bonds, and while he clearly values them, he is wary of revealing them to me.

The question of whether you should be friends with your coworkers is an interesting one. For me the answer is "Obviously yes, except it's kinda problematic."

At a personal level, being friends with your coworkers is good. You're going to spend a lot of your time together, and your life will be improved if you actually like spending time together.

At a professional level, being friends with your coworkers is also good: It significantly improves your team productivity. One of the things that is clear from Orr's book is that talking to each other, swapping war stories, sharing technical problems and advice, is almost inseparable from having a friendly conversation with each other. This isn't the equivalent of having a daily standup or a team meeting, it's a conversation, and it's much easier to have conversations with your friends. These conversations are an essential part of learning together and sharing important information.

Being friends with your coworkers makes literally everything better, and it is very hard to have a functioning company without a certain amount of bonds of friendship.

Also... this is how marginalisation works and reinforces itself, because not everybody can easily be friends with their coworkers.

I'm reminded of this piece from the FT (apologies for the paywall):

This was an instant, if brutal, reminder of the value of smoking at work. It is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of finding out what is really going on in the office.

[...]

I am indebted to a reader for my favourite ploy: an office beer fridge. A man from the US who has started and managed several companies wrote to tell me on-site grog had several proven benefits. Everyone got to know each other quickly, he said, “from production worker to the CEO”, and that made a big difference to the way they worked with one another.

These sorts of nonwork activities that promote socialisation end up being extremely good for establishing lines of information and common knowledge within the company that run orthogonally to formal lines of information.

Also, both smoking and drinking are hugely exclusionary ways of setting up those lines, right? They're effective, but they're effective for the people who are willing to participate them. Personally, I don't mind office drinking (but no thanks on the beer), and will find the presence of smokers around the office actively unpleasant, never mind joining them.

Many people have had bad experiences with alcohol, or avoid it for religious reasons, and above and beyond not drinking will not be at all comfortable around people who are drinking. It also tends to exacerbate other ways in which a group is exclusionary - if you're part of an underrepresented minority, people who are on their best behaviour while sober may start to show their true colours while drunk (and even if it turns out that their true colours are actually that they're perfectly nice people and there are zero problems, it's hard to know that in advance and this prevents the event from being relaxing and enjoyable).

There is a lot of criticism of the tech industry's reliance on alcohol for social bonding on grounds of it being exclusionary, and this criticism is entirely correct.

Unfortunately, the criticism tends not to get listened to, for one very simple reason: Drinking as a way of socialising works really well, and without something to replace it, this criticism asks the majority to make a significant personal sacrifice for the minority's comfort. This doesn't tend to go well. Should the majority do it? Well, maybe. But you need to work with the audience that you have.

Even if you overcome this and find a perfectly innocuous way of doing team socialisation, you end up with issues of conflicting identity.

I was at a London Liberating Structures meetup group right before lockdown started, and someone there suggested that on Mondays they tried to get a lot of discussion going between people about what they'd done over their weekend, as a kind of ice breaker / social bonding exercise.

I gently suggested to them that this might not work so well because you're trying to force people to disclose things they may not want to disclose. People don't generally want to tell their coworkers that they spent the weekend at a sex party (this is a common problem among my friend group).

It doesn't have to be a sex party either. People are probably equally unwilling to tell their staunchly atheist coworkers that they spent the weekend at a bible study. Telling people that they spent their weekend at a protest risks office politics.

More innocuously, you have a divide between parents and non parents. If a parent talks about how they spent their weekend with their kids, the other parents in the room may join in talking about their kids, while the non-parents sit there twiddling their thumbs. Or, equally, if you're the only parent in the room and everyone is talking about the fun things they were up to this weekend and you were mostly doing childcare duties.

I think part of the problem here is that we are too used to playing friendship on easy mode and largely lack the skill of having heterogenous friends groups. It's much easier to be friends if you can find strong points of commonality with each other and minimise points of conflict. When your main point of commonality is that you work together, you will often lack that easy mode.

The problem gets worse when you take into account that some people actually just may not be able to make friends that easily. They may be lacking in social skills, or they may just be kinda traumatised and find it difficult to trust people. Many of these people are lovely, brilliant, people, and even those who aren't probably need to work somewhere - because, alas, capitalism. How do we make a system that works for them?

Also, when you try to deliberately help those people integrate, this may seem like an attack on them, because it reads like a social test that they can fail.

All of these problems are, I think, even worse at a small company. I wrote about the problem with not fitting in in small towns before, and small companies are like that but more so. If you work in an office with a thousand other people there are probably others like you there (whether you can find them is another issue). That doesn't necessarily solve your problem if you're not on their team, but it at least helps. If you work at a company of five other people, chances are good that you have a number of traits that are unique to you, and some of those may be ones that result in you being excluded.

It is at this point that I reveal the easy, brilliant, and obvious solution that will solve all of these problems.

Err.

Maybe it's not. I was kinda hoping you would do that for me. Because this problem seems like a giant insoluble mess and I barely have any idea where to start - any solution seems far too contextual for me to propose any general principles.

Mostly I'd like people to start by acknowledging the problem: Being friends with your coworkers is important and valuable, and currently we only make it accessible to people who get to play friendship on easy mode.