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As a working adult, it’s hard to make friends. Gone are the built-in academic networks we found in dorms and classes. Only memories remain of sports team camaraderie. But still, a person needs others to lean on. It would make sense then to find friends at work, where you spend (at least) forty hours of your week.

But most of us just haven’t made our work time very social. In the New York Times, Adam Grant reported on studies indicating that Americans have significantly less work friends than other countries and that having a close friend at work has decreased over the past three decades. Grant writes, “Once, work was a major source of friendships. We took our families to company picnics and invited our colleagues over for dinner.” The article points out that we don’t have one-track careers anymore. People switch jobs every few years, so there is less importance placed on deepening office bonds.

But our changing times might be denying us a very useful element of our careers. NPR therapist Shankar Vedantam recently reviewed a study from Rutgers University about coworker friendships. These researchers found that having someone to while away the work day with can benefit our efficiency. Sure, you have to navigate these professional-come-personal relationships with care. Researcher Jessica Methot tells NPR that office pals can be emotionally draining if we feel pressured to maintain good rapport while, at times, competing for positions or pay raises. But who wouldn’t want someone who makes going to work a little more fun?

To help you approach the fine line of professional friendships, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Steve Carell has moved on to Woody Allen films, and John Krasinski is busy having babies with wife Emily Blunt, but we’re still not over the years we spent with them at The Office. If there’s any group of coworkers that can teach us the dos and don’ts of work friends, it’s the staff of Dunder Mifflin.

DON’T . . . Take Cues from Michael Scott.

When considering workplace friendships, there’s one thing that you need to ask yourself: Does this friendship take away from my productivity? While it may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen an episode of The Office, you’re ultimately at work to work and not to make friends. If you’re having trouble maintaining boundaries between your work and personal life, it may be time take a step back and assess how beneficial this friendship really is for your career and the good of the company.

This can be especially difficult if you’re in a position of authority—you can’t overlook someone’s work ethic just because you’re buddies. I'm looking at you, Michael Scott. Having a friend at work shouldn't change the way you treat everyone else. While it’s okay not to be friends with everyone, it is important that you remain polite and diplomatic by treating your coworkers equally and not favoring your friends.


DO . . . Find Your Jim (or Pam).

Because you spend so much of your day (and by extension, your life) at work, it’s great if you have someone there to make bad days more bearable and normal days more fun. Whether it’s finding your soulmate like Jim or Pam (which, by the way, is an even finer line; more on that here) or just somebody to eat lunch with, having a friend can improve your work—the Rutgers study found that “people who had more friendships at work were often rated by their supervisors as being more productive.”

If you want an authentic friendship, you've got to keep it real. We can get caught up in networking. Instead, take a step back from the pressure of branding and making advantageous connections to connect with others on a personal level. A good work friend can make the difference between getting to work on time and calling in sick. Or, as the study points out, the difference between your best work and your worst.

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DON’T . . . Be a Dwight.

Part of the reason Americans don’t pursue workplace friendships is that we’re more focused on climbing the ladder than we are about the people we meet along the way. "Now, work is a more transactional place," Grant writes. Ambition and achievement are good things, but when we befriend coworkers, we also befriend our potential competitors. Methot says this "opens us up to these paradoxes that we don't necessarily think about as being associated with friendships."

The best way to avoid tension and faking joy if a colleague gets a raise and we don't is getting to know the person, not the opponent. Whether it’s greeting them in the morning with a little small talk about “bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica” or the trusty weather, knowing more about who your colleague is outside the office will make it a lot easier to work with them. Reserve lunch or coffee breaks for non-work talk. A bit of humor even softens competitive Dwight up, which was always fun to watch.

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DO . . . Make ‘Rules’ of Business.

One of the secrets to a healthy workplace friendship is taking it slow, so keep the relationship professional until further notice. Keep in mind that this all depends on your company culture. Maybe you're in an office of suit-wearing corporate types or maybe you all greet each other with hugs and sit on bean bag chairs (in which case, just go for it!). Whatever your situation, assess what boundaries you should have when it comes to how and when you socialize and what’s appropriate for your workplace colleagues. Frequent interruptions during the workflow probably aren't OK. But a weekly lunch time book club might be just fine. Be clear about boundaries, and your work products and friendships will flourish.

Your work friends may never be as chummy as your best friends, but maybe that's OK. I mean, who can get work done when you can’t stop laughing at inside jokes?

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It may be hard to pursue an intentional friendship at work these days, but there's a lot more to your colleagues than the work you have in common. Take a step back from the office politics and figure out what that is—you may just find a new best friend. Dwight and Jim took a while to get there, but they eventually became model officemates and friends.

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Photo Credit: NBC