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Why work friendships can actually make you better at your job

Getting close with your co-workers isn’t only beneficial on an emotional level, but on a professional one, too. Research has found that one of the biggest predictors of job satisfaction is having a best friend at work, and women who say they have someone to lean on at the office are twice as likely to feel engaged in the work they do compared to women who don't, according to a recent study by Gallup.

Experts know why this is the case. "An office best friend can help you learn the ins and outs of a work environment, potentially allow you to supplement your own skillset by picking up some of their expertise, and help employees look forward to coming into work each day," Kat Cohen, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of IvyWise and author of The Truth About Getting In, tells Mic.

Yet despite these benefits, research from Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois found that only 29% of employees who responded to the study had actually turned a colleague into an actual friend. For many people, it seems, moving a relationship from purely professional to friendly can feel uncomfortable or impossible — especially new hires just getting the lay of the land. "Forging friendships can be challenging, particularly for new employees," notes Cohen.

Still, she adds, bonding with your co-workers is worth the effort — and starting an office friendship doesn't have to require doing anything too out-of-the-box. “People go for drinks after work. Get face to face with someone who’s a great potential for a BFF,” advises Amanda Clayman, financial therapist and financial wellness advocate for Prudential. If drinks isn't an option, moving professional conversations outside the office (i.e. going for a walk on a nice day to talk about an upcoming project) can also be a great way to get closer to a colleague. “The environment can shift your connection,” explains Clayman. “It’s still a work-related activity so it doesn’t feel as seventh grade as asking someone to be your friend.”

And don't get intimidated by the work friendships that might already exist already all around you; Andrea Bonier, Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today that while established friend groups "will likely seek out and talk to each other, have inside jokes, and actually be interested in each other and sit next to each other... that does not necessarily mean that they are a clique or that they do not want to meet you."

Having a close pal at the office is absolutely possible — not to mention important for your career success. Here's why:

It can renew your confidence

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Sure, it’s great when a co-worker notices your new haircut, but getting compliments from a work friend on your presentation skills or being leaned on for advice about a career move can be a greater "source of self-esteem and pride," says Clayman. She adds that women, especially, are often not aware of their own competence or strengths until someone else notes them, but once they become part of a network, they begin to see themselves through the lens of their peers, and thus in a more positive light. So next time your friend asks for your help on a project, take it as a major compliment and bask in the moment.

It can help you set boundaries

Of course, it'd be nice if you could share your every thought with friends in and out of the office. But the reality is that while it's fine to have casual chats with your close co-workers, certain boundaries need to be set; after all, you never know if your friend might one day become your boss, or if they'll consider something you share inappropriate for the workplace.

“Keep in mind always that even though this is a person you have a relationship with, you can’t guarantee that someone is going to be trustworthy or to keep confidential things you're sharing with them. This person does have access to the same people you do,” says Clayman.

While this might feel limiting, it's actually not a bad thing. Having an office friend will allow you to practice filtering out topics that aren’t professional, like your sexual escapades, what you really think of your other co-workers, or, really, anything you don’t want possibly ending up on the company’s email server.

It can lower stress levels

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Work-caused stress can be detrimental to both your professional output and physical health. Luckily, an office friendship can help on both fronts. “One way humans bring down their stress level is connection. We aren’t meant to be in isolation,” says Clayman. When feeling overwhelmed by work, she adds, having a colleague to lean on can be a huge help, even if they can't solve your problems. “When we're in a vulnerable place, it doesn’t mean that person needs to give us a suggestion or answer," she explains. "The very act of the connection can position us [to calm down and make a decision for ourselves]."

Work friends can also help center you during particularly intense moments. Say you're mid-PowerPoint presentation in front of a group of executives, and your slideshow suddenly freezes; knowing you have a pillar of support either in the audience at the time, or on Slack afterwards, can help you regroup and cope with the situation more gracefully.

Additionally, an office BFF can be a great ally to have when making stressful projects or decisions, since the colleague probably understands what you're going through. “Sometimes we need another person in the trenches with us to help us process what the best thing to do is," explains Clayman. "A lot of [work-related] situations are ambiguous, and sometimes we need to talk it through with someone who has a lot of insight into the type of dilemmas we’re navigating."

It can help you adapt to change

When you or your friend leaves the company or gets promoted, your friendship will undoubtedly change, and Clayman says "it’s good to think about that ahead of time" in order to prepare yourself for the challenges ahead. That said, learning to adapt to change is an invaluable life skill, and so while having your office friendships undergo transformations can be difficult, it can also be a great tool.

And if you manage to make the friendship last, no matter what changes happen in each person's career? It can benefit you greatly in the long run. “20 years from now, you might be doing business together," says Clayman. "I see people in senior roles not because they have a longer work history but because of the relationships they’ve made over their careers."

While moving a professional relationship to a friendship can feel awkward at first, the emotional and professional benefits are entirely worth it. And let's be real — we can all use someone who will have our backs when we're gearing up to speak to our bosses or tell us there's broccoli in our teeth before a company-wide presentation.