Have you ever noticed how tiny John Travolta’s beard is? It’s really small. Like, very, very small. Or at least, it was around the year 2014. In fact, perhaps it doesn’t even qualify as a beard; it’s more an infinitesimal island of facial hair that set itself up on John Travolta’s face and refused to leave. It can’t have been an aesthetic decision, surely not. Perhaps it’s hiding something, some sort of grotesque chin abnormality. Perhaps it’s in a movie contract. Whatever it is, the discovery of John Travolta’s tiny beard was perhaps the greatest moment of friendship celebration I’ve had in an office environment.
Circa 2014, my friend Rosie and I were browsing the Internet (it was our job to do so, at the time) and came across an article by a very funny Australian journalist called Nick Bond. Nick announced the debut of the tiny beard with a full photograph of John Travolta, in a suit, on the red carpet. What followed was a series of photos, each zoomed in slightly more than the last, until the final one, which was literally just the offending facial hair in question. Something about the simple genius of this article really tickled Rosie and me. We came very close to printing it out and wallpapering the entire office with it.
And then there was the twist: Rosie had been to a red carpet event in LA and actually had a photograph taken with John Travolta and the tiny beard. Her face was nearly touching the beard as they leaned in for a selfie. She brought the photo up on her laptop and by this stage, we were screaming. We were in such fits of giggles there was no chance of us doing any proper work all afternoon. We cried actual salty tears of happiness. When someone went to a meeting or the bathroom, we’d change their screen saver to a picture of The Beard. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at anything in my life.
And that’s what work friendship can be like: magnificent and funny and irreverent. It can make work a joy, and can literally change your entire attitude to getting up every morning and turning up at the same place every day. Good work friends are total game changers. Sure, they can be a huge distraction — whispering about your latest Tinder date as you mainline free cookies over the sink and dedicating entire email threads to Ryan Gosling’s true feminist intentions are not, strictly speaking, what your boss would consider the best use of your time — but I’d argue everyone needs a certain level of escapism built into their corporate lives or they’d go mad.
Having Rosie at work meant I always had a confidant, an advisor and a buddy. She was, in the popular language of the cool people, my ‘work wife’. People often refer to their closest friends at work as their ‘work wife’ or ‘work husband’, which probably hints at the fact that we see these people more often than the ones we choose to marry/sleep with/share residential space with/unconditionally adore. The coining of that phrase probably also has something to do with the level of emotional support that person provides. Work can be an extremely stressful place, and your work wife or husband is your sanctuary and your support. That is, if you’ve got a good one. Or maybe two.
Author Kayleen Schaefer on the unique power of female friendships. Post continues below.
Having work mates can, at least, put you in a good mood and at best, completely change the way you approach your work life. This isn’t just anecdotal, either. Studies show that having just one close friend at work improves mood, attention span and perhaps more surprisingly, productivity. Work spouses can make us more focused, more loyal and more passionate.
A well-known 1999 Gallup Poll found that those who had a friend at work were 43 per cent more likely to report they had received praise and recognition for their work in the past week. The objective of the poll was to identify what companies with high levels of the following are doing right: employee retention, customer metrics, productivity and profitability. The guy who devised the survey questions was almost laughed out of the office when he suggested they ask how strongly people identify with the statement, ‘I have a best friend at work’ but his insistence on including friendship as a metric of corporate success was validated. People with strong work friendships were 37 per cent more likely to report that someone at work has encouraged their development, 27 per cent more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel like their work is important and 27 per cent more likely to report that they feel like their opinions matter.
All of which is to say, unequivocally, that friendship in the workplace is an important thing. Not just to keep employees happy, but to make them better at their jobs. Research consistently and overwhelmingly suggests that people with at least one strong work friendship perform better, think more creatively, show more initiative and get better results. They get sick less often, have fewer accidents and change jobs less frequently.
Managers and bosses all over the world should and do take notice of this research; why else do you think Google bought so many brightly coloured bean bags for their meeting rooms, why else does every start-up and creative agency have a ping pong table? We are becoming increasingly aware that friendship (or at the very least, a congenial atmosphere made up of comfortable, garish furniture and indoor sports) is essential to success, quite contrary to the rather dismal urban myth that the greatest achievers among us are loners.
This is an edited extract from The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, published by HarperCollins Australia and available now.