My work is a mixed bag of face-to-face customer interactions punctuated with solitary work. As a business analyst, after I meet with customers and get them to talk to me about what they need, I spend long stretches documenting those needs, diagramming models and mockups, or doing more research. With customers dispersed across the state, we conduct many meetings virtually, meaning I take them at my desk. I often eat lunch at my desk or skip it altogether. A not-insignificant amount of time is spent in my car getting to customer meetings. I work on a team with other analysts working on other projects, so we only meet as a team every few weeks or so.
Most people with extroverted tendencies need a strong social undercurrent to our everyday life to help recharge our batteries. There was a brief period of a few months when I was on a dedicated program team in a shared workspace. It didn’t last long before a reorganization put me back in my cubicle, but I can’t remember a time at this job when I felt more engaged and integral to getting things done.
Some suggest that the social nature of the open workspace is an enemy to productivity, but my team and I shipped two new custom-built applications for our customers during that time while keeping the lights on for a portfolio of other clients. It should go without saying that this isn’t everyone’s recipe for success – it depends on the team dynamic, and since a team is not monolithic but is composed of individuals with different work preferences and social habits, it won’t work this way for everyone. But being in a social, collaborative workspace taught me how important it is to try to develop real friendships at work.
We called it the “circle of trust.” While we may have been poking fun at ourselves a bit, there is something to that. As I think on the most edifying relationships I have had at work, I realize that the common denominator is typically a sense of trust. This is not just the ability to depend on the other person to come through on their commitments – more than that, it is the sense that I am at liberty to express myself honestly without fear of judgment or reprisal. The obvious corollary is that the most anxiety-ridden interactions are the ones most marked with distrust or the absence of trust.
As careers have turned from long-term, pension-bearing relationships with single employers to sequences of three-t0-five-year stints, the need to connect with our co-workers has diminished. There’s no longer a sense that your relationships with your co-workers will be decades-long, so making a generous emotional investment doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. But studies have shown that friendships at work correlate to higher levels of productivity and employee engagement, and my personal anecdotes support that.
Work friendships are of significant and particular importance for women working in male-dominated fields like technology. Work friendships are at least a matter of convenience and can help pass the time. For a woman in tech, they can be life rafts. Talking to other women is often the only way that we know if we are being gaslit; sometimes they are the trusted venues by which we confide in one another about the frustrations of bias, discrimination, or harassment. Women are more likely to empathize with the nearly relentless questioning of our competence, questioning that comes from ourselves as often or more often than it comes from others. They provide emotional support for the issues that still predominantly affect them, like how to keep moving forward in a career with a family when working in an industry that often demands a deep well of ‘hustle’ and after-work work. Work friends, specifically, are important here, because even if you are lucky enough to have strong personal friendships as an adult (many of us struggle with that too), those personal friends don’t come with the shared context of the workplace. That shared experience becomes a shorthand. There is an efficiency to your understanding of one another.
While I still work in a cubicle and sometimes struggle with feeling ‘a part of things’, I have a group of women I count on to be game to get together over happy hour and shoot the shit. These women are sharp, bold, funny, and self-possessed. This is my new ‘circle of trust’, and it fortifies me against everyday emotional wear-and-tear. I’d be adrift without it. If you don’t have something similar at work, you should do something to change that.