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When Abigail Lee joined the skincare start-up, Ren, she was straight out of university and had just moved to London.
Lee told CNBC that she was a fan of the brand having tried its products at a counter in upscale British store Harrods a few years previously. While studying, she sought an internship at Ren, which turned into a full-time role. As the firm was small, it was easy to make connections, Lee said. “You [didn’t] have to wait to go to the water [cooler] to speak to somebody, it was just the culture that the two founders built … [a] family-type of culture, really, it breaks down those barriers.”
Soon, she had befriended a Spanish colleague, Eva, the firm’s head of customer service, and the two became close. “She’s 10 or 12 years older than me … and I would say I was much more serious about things. And she taught me how to laugh at myself.” Although the two would occasionally clash in meetings, “[we’d] then get up and go to Waitrose to go for lunch … The space that the founders created was the platform, and then the rest was up to us,” Lee said.
When Ren was sold to Unilever in 2015, Lee decided it was time to leave — having spent seven years at the firm. Did her friendships keep her in the role over that time? “There were elements [of that], because just going to work and spending time with people that make you laugh and be happy, they care about you, they champion you — it’s such a luxury,” she said. She and Eva continue to be good friends, 13 years after they met.
Best friends as best employees
Lee is not alone. Having close friendships in the workplace is something consultant Bruce Daisley says can help retain staff, and it’s a topic he explored earlier this month in his newsletter Make Work Better. “One of the things that helps forge these friendships is a sense of shared experience. Things we do with other people just feel more significant,” he wrote of the relationships people develop.
Gallup research suggests that having a best friend at work links directly to how much employees put into their roles. “For example, women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%),” the company said in an online post in 2018.
Daisley, a former vice president at Twitter, said he is close friends with people he met in his first role in ad sales in the 1990s, including Pinterest executive Nick Hewat and Dara Nasr, who runs Twitter in the U.K. And having a “best friend” at work could go some way to stemming the tide of the so-called “Great Resignation” — a record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August, per the U.S. Labor Department.
However, those relationships are much harder to maintain when many people are still working at home, he said.
One organization Daisley spoke to had been proud of its familiar, empathetic culture, but had struggled to maintain it as people increasingly worked away from the office. “[One employee] said to them … I feel like I’d maybe been so captivated by that [culture], that it was stopping me resigning. Now I’ll find a job that pays me five grand more, and I’m leaving,” he told CNBC by video call.
While some companies are seeing higher productivity and better financial results, some are also seeing “their highest resignation rate in 10 years,” Daisley said of the firms he works with.
According to a survey by staffing company Randstad, that “sellers’ market,” looks set to continue with 56% of workers either having recently changed jobs or “actively looking.” The firm polled 27,000 people in countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia between Aug. 23 and Sept. 12 for its Workmonitor report, published this month.
“The market is bouncing back, people see possibilities … [when] working from home, and if it’s prolonged, sort of lowers the thresholds to looking around,” Randstad CEO Jacques van den Broek told CNBC by video call.
While managers may not become close friends with their employees, staff still look to them to provide support. A December 2020 Randstad poll suggested a “remarkable” percentage of people felt emotionally supported by their employer, with 71% saying that was the case, but things have now flipped, according to van den Broek. “In the beginning [of the pandemic], people felt cared for and felt supported, but now the market is opening up and [employees] feel, maybe I should create a new balance.”
Randstad’s latest research showed that 62% of those aged 25 to 34 “feel undervalued and plan to look for another job with better pay and benefits,” according to an emailed release. “We call it the great enlightenment; they are taking the reins of their own career,” van den Broek said.
What about the concept of the best friend at work? “We see it in our business a lot … our staff is on average, 27, 28 years old … People do get close to each other, they’re in the same learning curve … getting to know the business [and] they’re in the same phase of life,” he said. And the concept can apply in a leader-employee relationship, he added.
“My main challenge is to reach out to people and to be in a good sense, the best friend at work. That might sound naïve because you’re still the boss. But we do want to instill that. Because, if you respect me and I respect you, and I’m interested in who you are as a person … we also have better results.”
And van den Broek said that keeping close to employees will help to retain them. “The call-out is quite clear: Take care of your people … acknowledge them, but be aware that, you know, they might slip away before you know it.”
Does technology have a role to play in forging closer relationships? While it can be an enabler, Daisley is cautious and said he’d received numerous pitches for games where people can walk around a virtual office and fortuitously overhear conversations in an attempt to recreate the ubiquitous watercooler moment. “I don’t think, yet, that we’ve [found] those solutions where people go, wow, that’s doing something completely intuitive but underserved,” he said.
For Lee, the connections she’s made in former roles are likely to be friends for life. “We’re close enough to open up [about] our rough moments. There’s losses, there’s friction and things in our lives and we can turn to these people, and that is very precious,” she said.
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