Human Resources

Rant: Tech & the slow demise of work friendship?

“I don’t trust any of my colleagues,” said a friend of mine ruefully recently. “They’d stab you as soon as look at you…”

Technology has changed everything. As the cliché goes, it has altered the way we work, the way we do business and the way we socialise. Yet one oddly overlooked area may be workplace friendship.

Because as Adam Grant put it recently, in a contributed op-ed in the New York Times: “ONCE, work was a major source of friendships.”

Of course, technology isn’t directly to blame for this decline. But the evidence suggests it may be a strong contributing factor. In his piece, Grant cites stats that show in 1985, about half of Americans had a close friend at work. By 2004, this figure had dropped to 30%.

In that time period we’ve seen the rise of globalisation, hollowing out at work, and the ascendency of low-cost cloud freelancing sites. Ultimately it all comes down to the growth of the internet.

Grant’s argument focuses on North America – he highlights that things are different in Poland or India – where digital penetration is lower (although this is not his argument). But this general US trend also seems pretty consistent with the UK and other parts of Western Europe.

In fact, a survey of 2,546 Brits published in March showed 48% of those polled don’t like the majority of their colleagues. This covered a wide variety of over 18s and suggested the top five reasons were: annoyingness; age differences; personality clashes; “they just aren’t very nice” and “too competitive”.

Personally, I thought the last two were very telling indeed. And although this survey covered a range of industries and was obviously flippant flim-flam PR, it may get closer to the heart of the problem than Grant’s suggestion.

He reckoned people aren’t friends with their colleagues because of a “transactional mind-set in American workplaces” where people don’t want to “invest time” in getting to know each other. This clearly holds a certain amount of truth but also doesn’t seem entirely credible. Because after all, if people are in an organisation they might as well be friends if possible as it will probably make things easier and more fun.

I think a lot of people aren’t really friends with their colleagues because of a deep-seated wariness.

I mean, everyone knows you have to be so careful with people from work – because while they may pretend to be friends – often they just want something boring. This could be as simple as your free-time spreadsheet help… or something a little more complicated such as an unspecific shortcut to career gains for them.

But it could also all rapidly spiral out of control quite. One minute you’re listening to someone’s problems. The next you’ve been inveigled into their crazy world view. After that, you could get easily – accidentally – get pitched headlong into some pointless political affray you want no part of. This can lead people to keep colleagues at arm’s length.

Over the last few years, I’ve written loads on workplace bullying and connection between the “dark triad” and corporate climbers. Oliver James did extremely well with his 2013 book “Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks”. And really, anyone who has not noticed the politics in their workplace is either exceptionally naïve or has their eyes shut.

Yet there is some evidence things could be worsening…

This might be prejudice on my part. Moral decline has been a popular – and largely nonsense – theme in the media since Roman times. But when it comes to office politics and general work bilge, I do think things are on a downward spiral. And as usual the reasons ultimately come down to tech-enabled communication:

Social networks and crazy careerism. Online career forums – like LinkedIn – are compulsory for most professionals. You can’t not be on there. Yet these reinforce the idea that everyone should be constantly looking for cunning ways to sneak up the greasy career pole. It is a “Next!” “Next!” “Next!” world of onwards and upwards where envy and dissatisfaction reigns supreme. And friendship can only be used as a tool for success.

Soundbite culture easily converts to the management pep talk. There has always been a lot of nonsense spoken in the workplace. But when you start yelling about your passion for spreadsheets round the internet – and some nutters will “like” it – this bizarreness is likely to leak more-and-more into real-life chat. Who can we shout “Noooooooooooooo this is rubbish!” to without seeming negative and unreliable?

Globalisation and the empty taunt that anything is possible. In the past most people stayed relatively close to home and followed the often limited opportunities that came their way based on who they knew and how expensive their education was. Now, this is still largely true but there is also a huge false notion that there are far more opportunities available… mostly, because we can see them all popping up in the ether. This ultimately leads to more competiveness and a higher social acceptability of back stabbing, which can, after all, always be re-cast as “drive”.

A lack of job security which leaves workers quietly terrified. In a world where everyone is “motivated”, “passionate” and “seeking the next big challenge”, it is hard to know who can really be trusted.  This is a humourless onwards and upwards landscape of promotions, tick-box careerism… of course, and firings aplenty.   

So what about work friendship?

Well, it may just be one of the many casualties of the digital age. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway…

After all, the whole world has flipped on its head. And now you can always get on Facebook or WhatsApp and have a laugh with your real friends…. wherever they are.


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