We’ve all been there. Turning to a best friend, a self-help guru, or a magazine article to help us figure out how to make love last. When it comes to romantic relationships, the advice is limitless. Bookstores are awash in titles on the subject. Articles, studies, surveys, opinions, and expert insights clog the internet. And for good reason: romantic relationships are important, and worth nurturing. Our partners in life support us in hard times and increase our joy when life is good. Working to sustain these relationships pays dividends.
Compared to the agony and ecstasy of romantic partnerships, our relationships with colleagues can feel downright mundane. And yet we spend hours a day with our coworkers—often significantly more hours than with our partners or families. According to a Gallup poll, many workers in the U.S. are putting in more than a 40-hour work week: “Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails.”
We are family
Translation? With today’s longer workdays, hyper-connectivity, and blending of our public and private lives, there’s little doubt that we know more, share more, and see more of our colleagues than ever before.
There’s little doubt that we know more, share more, and see more of our colleagues than ever before.
Coworkers have evolved into a kind of “family away from family,” presenting a need for rewarding relationships within the confines of work. And this is a good thing. According to an in-depth study of workplace friendships conducted by Globoforce, “Employees with friends are more likely to love their companies.” The study goes on to note the importance of strong workplace relationships in building a culture of trust and pride, and in encouraging worker retention.
“It’s clear that creating a culture that prioritizes and cultivates friendship and emotional ties can go a long way” toward creating a “best in class” work culture. People who have friends where they work report being happier in their jobs, a plus for employers and employees alike.
The guide to better relationships
We have a lot to gain, then, by establishing strong friendships with coworkers. And, like all relationships, cultivating and sustaining work friendships requires effort. We humans rarely check our personal preferences and personality tics at the office door. If your goal is closer connections with office mates and coworkers, how do you know if you’re going about it the right way? Take a page from best-selling author Gary Chapman (The 5 Love Languages) and adapt his popular recipe for better relationships.
With a bit of tweaking (indulge me!) Chapman’s book on the five essential love languages looks like a pretty good guide for building and maintaining strong friendships at work.
Chapman’s book is a response to his belief, based on years of counseling couples, that people speak different emotional love languages. Just like we learn our native tongues (French, Chinese) from our families while growing up, we learn a “love language”—an understanding of how to recognize and express love. Chapman holds that couples rarely speak the same love language and must instead learn to speak the primary emotional language of the other if they hope to communicate effectively. To establish connections at work, try to speak the language your coworkers speak, and your offer of friendship will come in loud and clear.
Just like we learn our native tongues from our families while growing up, we learn a “love language”—an understanding of how to recognize and express love.
Now, the trickier part…working out which love language belongs to each colleague. Unless they’ve taken (and publicized the results of) the Love Language quiz, you may need to do some detective work. Does your coworker frequently praise your work? Chances are, Words of Affirmation is his primary love language. Does your office mate drop a toasted bagel on your desk every Friday morning? I’ll bet she’d love to Receive Gifts in return. Most of us act out the language that we crave, hinting at what motivates and charms us. Alternatively, as Chapman points out, you can look at what your colleagues ask for at work…a signal of something they need but aren’t getting. If your team member frequently requests an in-person meeting in response to your IM, he probably values Quality Time.
Putting the love in the Love Languages
Loosely adapted (with apologies) from Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages:
If your colleague’s love language is Quality Time:
Designate weekly meeting times and keep them.
Grab lunch together on a regular basis, leading to quality conversation—a “dialect” of Quality Time.
If your colleague’s love language is Acts of Service:
Notice when he’s underwater at work and offer to take something off his plate.
Ordering office supplies? Order a new stapler for her, too.
If your colleague’s love language is Words of Affirmation:
Tell him what a great job he’s doing on a regular basis.
Commend her recent efforts in front of the full team…this makes the affirmation even more powerful.
If your colleague’s love language is Receiving Gifts:
Leave a piece of homemade banana bread on his desk.
Send flowers at the conclusion of a big project that she hit out of the park.
Those of you counting at home will note only four love language above. If you sense your colleague’s love language is Physical Touch, and you’d prefer to remain on the right side of your Employee Handbook and avoid embarrassment, termination or both, look for his or her secondary love language and go with that. This especially applies to work spouses!
Ready to put the love languages to work, at work?
The best part of this imperfect science? It’s likely your colleagues will respond well to any and all efforts you make to reach out to them. Even if Acts of Service isn’t my primary love language, I’m going to appreciate that you printed out that spreadsheet for me or refilled my coffee in our weekly staff meeting. Connection forged. Friendship strengthened.
Lastly, it probably needs to be said that not all office settings lend themselves to these kinds of relationship-building efforts. You’ll need to use your judgment when approaching colleagues in ways that blend the professional and personal. While some people crave deep friendships at work, not everyone does. It may be best to look at friendships already in place and work to deepen those, as opposed to attempting to forge brand new connections in ways that might be um, misinterpreted.
Bottom line: learning how to make your colleagues happy deepens friendships, and friendships improve the quality of work life. You’re spending a lot of time at work. Why not surround yourself with colleagues you call friends?
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.
Illustration by Andrea Mongia