Friendship and Vocation

A few years ago, Gallup asked employees in 152 organizations in 26 countries whether they were likely to have a best friend at work. The question was part of its overall assessment of “employee engagement,” which also asked employees other questions about the company’s mission, its growth and development, employee recognition and praise, whether your supervisor cares about you as a person, and so on. Not too surprisingly, average engagement among employees in Canada and the US are among the highest in the world. High engagement is correlated with wellbeing (employees rated whether they felt that they were thriving, struggling, or suffering). However, these countries fell “significantly below the global mean” on the item “I have a best friend at work.” Other industrialized countries, such as Western Europe, Australia, and Japan, also were below average.

We’ve had a couple of blog posts at Fare Forward about community and friendship in a transient age, where our friends are scattered and we have the mobility to eat, live, work and worship in different locations. Perhaps one place that I haven’t paid specific attention to is the workplace, which is odd, given that we spend most of our waking hours there. As a graduate from a good college, I have the privilege of being able to expect many things from my job other than a salary, such as a healthy company culture, mentors that invest in my growth, and a basic alignment of the company’s mission and values with my own. But I don’t think I have cultivated an expectation, nor have I been told to, that I should make good friends at work.

The relative scarcity of workplace friendships in industrialized countries might trace to the overall trade-offs of Western industrialization. By separating our Western lives into different Weberian spheres of “economy,” “religion,” “family,” and so on, we have achieved greater efficiency and productivity, but at the price of integration. Good work has been done theologically to integrate the spheres of “economy” or vocation and “religion” by demonstrating how all good work is God’s work. But perhaps the next work to be done is to integrate the sphere of “economy” and “personal friendship.”

How do we create structures in which we are treated as whole people? Is this a worthwhile goal, or are Weberian differentiations still functionally helpful?

[Image of adelphopoiesis from Wikipedia] 

About Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with a degree in American Studies. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy, and now works in New York, where she is part of the thought leadership team at LRN, a company that advises organizations on values within leadership and culture.

  • Jordan Ashley Monge

    I think it’s partially because Americans want to spend their time at work being productive. We often don’t take lunch breaks, and when we do, they are shorter than in many other places. I know I feel guilty if I spend time at work talking to people about non-work related things. Sometimes people will go out for drinks after work, but once you have a family that becomes difficult.

    Is it good to distinguish between friends and coworkers? I think it depends. I suspect it’s bad for me as an introvert, because it means I feel like I should devote time after work to friends instead getting time alone. It’s also probably bad for older people with families, since they don’t have as much free time for friends outside of work. But for the average twenty-something with few obligations, it’s probably not so bad?


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