Image: Edouard Vuillard, The Friends Around the Table, St. Jacut, 1909, Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
When was the last time you made a great friend?
Way back when, the structure of the school day provided the perfect conditions for new friendship. We attended the same classes, we learned from the same teachers and we experienced many of the same growing pains. It’s no wonder we bonded with each other.
So why doesn’t the same happen at work? According to the National Business Group on Health and Well-Being, only 30% of employees report that they have a best friend at work, and only 5% strongly agree that their organization helps them build stronger personal relationships.
Why is it so hard to build meaningful connections – and lasting friendships – in the workplace?
Recently, I sat in during exit interviews with participants who had recently completed a three-month Books@Work program at a large company. The program was launched as part of a wellness initiative to improve community among employees, and the group included people from a wide range of departments.
One participant shared a story about losing a loved one, and how “getting into enjoying reading books and enjoying the community” added to her happiness and well-being. Another felt that the process provided an “opportunity for interaction among a small group of readers who would not otherwise have discussions over their common experience of the book.”This idea of a “common experience” was a recurring theme in the interviews. Powerful conversations don’t happen every day, so for many participants, the text was an ideal launching point for discussion that went beyond the usual small talk of the work day. Nearly every participant we interviewed expressed a desire to connect with their colleagues – but they found it hard to do so without a built-in conversation starter.
“Someone who’s a stranger is very hard for me to make that connection with,” one participant said. “But if we have something to talk about that’s a focal point, then it suddenly becomes a common ground and a connection.” That sentiment was repeated over and over again. “I like that [our company] acknowledged and prioritized being part of a community, and getting together for a common purpose as an important aspect of how you feel about yourself and your experience at work.”
“Of all the wellness activities that we have, it was so relaxing to come talk about a book,” another participant said. “We had content there to direct our conversation, and people found that really helpful.”
Reading together opens doors to conversations we might never have otherwise in the workplace. We attend office happy hours and team building events – but do these events encourage us to talk to colleagues we don’t know that well? Do we really get to know each other on a deeper level?
When we bring a text and a professor into the workplace, we give people something rich and tangible to talk about. We create a safe space for the quiet colleagues to speak up and be heard. We provide a jumping-off point for the type of energetic and critical dialogue that we crave equally as adults as we did when we were children.
“These are conversations I don’t typically have at work,” one participant noted. “I don’t typically talk about family life, that kind of stuff, in work settings. So it was kind of nice to be – I can’t think of a better way to phrase it – sort of like my whole self in the space.”
It’s so much easier to be our whole selves at work and build lasting workplace relationships – and friendships – when we have a shared focal point like a book through which to connect. When we’re given the opportunity to learn together and open up and be vulnerable, we bond.
“It was about the books,” one participant said about the program, “but then it quickly became about so much more.”