Why Work Friends Can Make the Best of Friends

Forget "I'm not here to make friends"
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Forget "I'm not here to make friends"
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Photo Credit: Emilie Iggiotti

The texts came in overnight. Between midnight and 7 in the morning, a stream of updates indicated that she was in labor, and by afternoon, a beautiful little peanut entered this world with photographic evidence to prove it. My husband and I overflowed with joy for our close friends, some of the first in our circle to have a baby. We visited their hospital room, embracing newly minted grandparents and uncles and aunts. Holding their daughter, I felt like I knew her my whole life. This seemed strange because I only met her mom a little more than a year ago . . . at work.

As a young associate in the hypercompetitive world of big law firms, my mantra had always been, “I am not here to make friends.” Graduating during the recession did not ease my competitive paranoia, and by the time I landed a respectable job, I could not envision discussing yoga poses with my female colleagues over lunch. Besides, as the peon of my team, I almost never received an invitation to eat salad with my well-coiffed superiors. I harbored this icy sentiment even when I made the switch to my comparatively cushy in-house corporate gig, despite the quality of life improvement.

Even in a now-friendly work environment, forming close work friendships has always sounded like risky business to me. What if you have a fight and then still have to work together? Or maybe your personal relationship with a coworker gets in the way of getting a job done? The fear of making the “wrong friends,” those who have a bad reputation or who will throw you under the bus at their first opportunity, makes eating lonely lunches seem like a very sensible thing to do.

But organically, this changed. I began exchanging drafts of stories I had written with Jules, my work friend who is also a writer. Then Celine was hired for my team, and within weeks, we were sharing opinions about Rihanna’s tattoos on Instagram. Then Brooke, the new mom and former associate at Celine’s old law firm, came on board. Like a lame Match.com commercial, I just clicked with them. No posturing, corporate politicking, this will be good for my career­-ing. Just friendship, in a place that happens to involve our careers.

Work friendships offer the special benefit of allowing us to foster new relationships that have no preexisting connection to our personal lives. They are blank slates, a jury of sorts, offering the candor we sometimes need but cannot receive from our spouses or oldest friends. When trial lawyers select juries, they (are supposed to) strive to find unbiased individuals with untarnished opinions. New work friends are the closest to that standard we can achieve.

Many of my other friends stem from childhood, college, graduate school, or an entwinement of those worlds. They know me well, but occasionally, too well. They know each other, and they know my family—also, at times, too well. Even my husband, who has been in the picture since college, makes incorrect presumptions on how I will react to a problem today based on backdated experiences from years ago.

My dad, a marketing manager, once asked me, “Who sits on your board of directors?” Not your company’s board of directors, but your personal one. Which select family, friends, and colleagues do you consult when making pivotal life decisions? Whose opinions do you value the most? The honest answer is not always based on sentiment or seniority alone. These women, my “work friends,” all have seats on my board. As lady lawyers looking for some breathing room, we endure the same circumstances, face similar challenges, and understand each other’s professional desires in a like-minded manner. This kindred recognition fills a void in my life.

The numbers speak to how good work relationships can improve the daily grind. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 work an average of 8.7 hours on weekdays. That’s an average of 43.5 hours spent each week with the usual suspects. I spent less time with my first roommate in Manhattan, who slept ten feet from my head. And those numbers represent people with children, and for many of us riding the corporate cog without them, we may be working even more hours. Especially in a traditional office setting, the presence of a daily support system can combat those creeping feelings of isolation and loneliness that surface when the going gets tough.

I often joked that I, too, felt pregnant during Brooke’s pregnancy. On business days (and some nonbusiness days), we planned and decorated, diagnosed and lamented. We ate giant chocolate chip cookies that had no business being in my lunch routine. By the time she went on maternity leave, I knew enough about babies to start envisioning myself with one. I forgot what it was like to know Brooke not pregnant. That is, until I held her newborn baby—just another one of the girls who may as well have been lunching with us all along. Time is funny like that. The days go by slowly, but the years go by fast.

Some could argue, as lawyers do, that friendships forged in the workplace are fleeting. Some of them certainly are. But at the right moment in your life, you can sometimes meet people who make your everyday routine a little more bearable, and through it, you find some of your closest friends.

You may even get promoted to the board.