Ever heard of a 'work spouse'? This is a term used to refer to a close colleague at work (platonic, of course) whom we see more often than our REAL spouses.

Let's face it. For at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, the majority of us spend most of our time with colleagues instead of our own family or closest friends. Even in remote work, Zoom meetings, Skype calls and discussions with colleagues take up the majority of the workday. The ongoing pandemic has also reduced the opportunities that we have to interact with others or make friends outside of work.

With little time and opportunity to fulfil social needs, can colleagues then fulfil our inherent need for social interaction? Or, do people even want to be friends with their colleagues?

In this article, we explore the extent to which friendships are forged in the workplace, and how these friendships may come with their own set of benefits and problems. We surveyed 1,000 respondents each from 6 different countries across Southeast Asia; Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. We found some interesting insights, especially on how people from different countries in our region perceive workplace friendships. Keep reading to find out!

Filipinos Care The Most About Having Friends At Work

Generally, the majority of respondents have at least 1 colleague whom they consider as friends at work. However, when it comes to having very close friends, these numbers vary greatly across countries. Nearly half of the Indonesians (44%) we polled have very close friends at work, a huge contrast to the numbers in Singapore and Thailand, where only 11% and 15% respectively have colleagues at work whom they consider as very close friends.

But how important are workplace friendships? Do people even want to be friends with their colleagues?

When asked if respondents actually care about having friends at work, a whopping 91% of Filipinos indicated that they do. Although the majority of Singaporeans do care about having friends at work, they place the least importance (just 74%) on having friends at work compared to the rest of the countries. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam sit in the middle, with figures around 80%.

What causes this difference in attitudes toward workplace friendships? We think that the varied work cultures across the different countries could be a large part of the reason.

For example, in Indonesia, friendships come before business relationships, and even the practice of nepotism is not uncommon. Also, in the Philippines, work relationships are highly valued and there is much emphasis on treating work colleagues as close friends and family. Some employees even invite their bosses or superiors to be godparents of their children - something that is nearly unheard of in Singapore’s workplaces.

Having Friends At Work Make Us Happier And More Productive

Our survey found that our attitudes towards work can be influenced by the friendships we have at work! Having colleagues as friends could lead to higher levels of employee motivation, productivity, and happiness. When asked questions on different work metrics: motivation, productivity, happiness, those who have friends at work are more likely to agree that they feel more motivated, productive, and happy at work. This trend is generally present across all 6 countries that we surveyed.

Similarly, existing research showed that workplace friendships can have positive effects on employees, leading to improved employee retention and job performance. Just imagine, in an environment where you are comfortable with your colleagues, asking questions and expressing work-related ideas and opinions becomes much easier, and also allows for better teamwork and communication.

This trend is present in all countries we polled, but when we compare the numbers between those who have friends and those without, the differences between these vary across countries. For example, Malaysia reports the highest contrast in motivation, productivity and happiness between those with and without friends at work.

Singapore, on the other hand, has the least contrast between those with and without friends at work. Given that Singaporeans care the least about workplace friendships + few have at least 1 close friend, it is not surprising that even those who have friends at work score lower for those metrics compared to other countries -- only 44% of Singaporeans who have friends at work report feeling motivated at work, contrasted with 85% of Indonesians and 82% of Filipinos.

This could signal that workplace friendships affect employees to varying degrees depending on the country/ culture.

Having Friends At Work Is Not All Sunshine And Rainbows

Having friends at work is definitely fun, but can workplace friendships cause trouble?

When asked about concerns with having friends in the workplace, many respondents, even those who have colleagues whom they consider friends at work, have concerns regarding workplace friendships. Some common concerns of workplace friendships are (1) Workplace drama/ tensions (2) Bias/ favouritism (3) Exclusivity/ clique behaviour (4) The blurring of personal and work life and (5) Competition. (Ranked by the average of all countries).

These concerns differ between countries too. A higher proportion of Malaysians associate workplace friendships with Distractions at work compared to other countries. Thais and Vietnamese associate workplace friendships with Exclusivity/ clique behaviour much more than the other countries.

The Case For Separating Work And Personal Life

Despite the concerns on having workplace friendships, the reasons behind why 8% of respondents said they don’t have colleagues whom they consider friends is surprising.

Interestingly, the top reason is because they prefer to "draw boundaries between colleagues and friends" -- people don't have friends at work because they simply don't want to. A sizeable proportion of Malaysians and Filipinos indicate the Cons of having colleagues as friends as part of the reason, but the separation of work and personal life still remains the top reason.

A possible explanation for this could be the cognitively demanding effort to maintain these boundaries between work and personal life. A 2016 research paper suggests that when employees set boundaries between their personal and work life, it becomes mentally taxing on the individual to navigate between these boundaries. Over time, the fatigue from maintaining the boundaries can have negative spillover effects on the employee’s work performance.

Looking back at the second chart, the stark difference in terms of workplace performance metrics between those who have workplace friendships and those who don’t, suggests that perhaps the mental toll of maintaining these boundaries have a role to play in these figures.

Overall, workplace friendships are important to navigate as they play an important role in employee performance, even if you don’t realise it. While some have shown skepticism towards workplace friendships, it is important that workplaces build and embrace a culture of trust and rapport for employees to work better.