Everything you've heard about boosting employee engagement may be missing the mark. 

Sure, giving employees more autonomy or "ownership" of their tasks--or boosting their sense of purpose with sustainability initiatives--can help to boost engagement. But according to a new international survey of more than 2,300 professionals, there's something else you can try: Cultivating strong employee friendships. 

The survey was conducted by O.C. Tanner, a global employee recognition company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose clients include PepsiCo and The Home Depot. Here's a sampling of the key findings:  

  • 75 percent of employees who have a best friend at work say they feel they're able to take anything on, compared to 58 percent of those who don't have a best friend at work.
  • 72 percent of employees who have a best friend at work are satisfied with their jobs, compared to  54 percent of those who don't have a best friend at work.
  • Millennials (those born at any time between 1981 and 1997) top older generations when it comes to having a best friend at work. And the likelihood of having this type of connection goes down as age increases.

Those are the numbers. The obvious question is, Why? What's friendship have to do with engagement or resilience? "Having a best friend at work is indicative of a larger social well-being," says Gary Beckstrand, vice president of the OC Tanner Institute, the company's research arm. That well-being, he explains, means you're having mostly positive interactions with other people. These interactions often relate to subjects that are not, strictly speaking, work-related, which in turn "relaxes work environments" and makes the job more fun, even when tasks get stressful, Backstrand adds.

That millennials are more likely to have best friends at work was not surprising to O.C. Tanner, which itself has 1,200 employees. "The notion of work-life balance is changing fairly dramatically," says Beckstrand. "Younger generations don't compartmentalize as much as older ones. For many millennials, work and their outside life are blurred. They're thinking about work more often, talking about it more often, and those friendships they form at work extend to outside the job as well." 

How can leaders act on these findings, and cultivate a workplace where more friendships are formed? Beckstrand says you don't have to reinvent the wheel: Enjoyable offsites, where employees are free to bond away from the stresses of office life, are one method. 

You should also take an honest look at how your employees spend their days. Are they anchored to their laptops, seldom coming up for air? Do they prefer Slack and video games to real-life chats and activities involving physical participation, be they sports or board games? If so, you need to address it. You don't have to undermine your hard-working culture or force your introverts to socialize. "But within your own acceptability range, you can look at your policies for opportunities to gather with purpose," says Beckstrand.

Maybe this means more team lunches. Maybe it means building social breaks into your longer meetings. The overall idea is to create some downtime for your employees to hang out--pockets of time where they'll be interacting with each other, instead of worrying about whether their chit-chatting and laughing will be perceived as unproductive. 

Published on: Apr 18, 2016