How to Turn a Work Friend Into a Real Friend
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How to Turn a Work Friend Into a Real Friend

I met my soulmate at work. Not once, not twice, but three times. I’m not talking about romantic soulmates, but friend soulmates: the kind of women that I’ve always wanted in my corner. The ones that would be there to hype me up before asking my boss for a raise but also to pick up when I’m crying in the middle of the night over a stupid boy.

I remember fantasizing about having the relationship that Jane, Sutton and Kat do in The Bold Type. Three 20-something women working together at a fashion magazine—a trope I’ve seen a million times but one that, as a young journalist in her early 20s, I couldn’t seem to get enough of. (Kat removed a freakin’ yoni egg that was stuck in Jane’s vagina in the office’s fashion closet. If that isn’t friendship, I don’t know what is.)

My first work-friend-turned-real-friend was someone I met at my first big-girl magazine job. We were both single at the same time, and we spent our weeknights hopping from PR event to PR event, swiping on dating apps, and making out with random guys at dimly lit bars. We were unstoppable. And I thought our friendship was infinite—until she switched jobs and the pandemic hit, and the time between text messages went from days to weeks to months.

Then, there are the two women in my life that are my work-friend-turned-real-friend success stories. One I currently still work with and another who I don’t (but it feels like nothing has changed. Our friendship has only gotten stronger since we left the magazine.) We talk about watching each other walk down the aisle and meeting each other’s babies—and I know in my heart that we’re in it for the long haul.

With the friends you meet at work, it’s not just about proximity or convenience—you already have common interests (being in the same industry), plus you can bond over workplace politics like no other friend in your life can. Casual Slack messages during team meetings turn into gossip-filled lunch dates that turn into sending each other memes on Instagram. And then one of you invites the other to their karaoke birthday party (true story), and well… the rest is history.

If you’re wondering how to make that friendship transition (or if you even should), I chatted with Dr. Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. Here’s her advice:

How do I know that my work friend would make a good “real” friend?

These are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is this somebody I can trust? Trust to have my best interest in mind? Trust to support me in all the ways that colleagues should? Trust to keep certain information confidential?

  • If I share a little bit, or invite them to share, how are they responding to that? Are they starting to open up a little bit as well?

  • Is this person open to being friends with me? Are they thinking of me in that way? (And if not, please don’t take it personally. Some people don’t want to mix their work and personal lives.)

You also want to make sure that there’s no hierarchy, and no sense of competition or scarcity in terms of sharing similar goals, adds Dr. Kirmayer. It gets tricky when one friend gets promoted and is now tasked with supervising, mentoring or giving feedback to the other friend. We’ve got tips for how to deal with that here.

Should I become friends with my colleagues in the first place?

Friendship positively impacts all areas of our lives—but especially our work lives, according to Dr. Kirmayer. “Making the effort to make friends and develop those friendships absolutely benefits our wellbeing, success and our professional growth.” 

We spend one third of our life at work, and having work friends helps us feel more connected to the team and makes us feel like we belong. It’s also a good business decision. It increases engagement, productivity, job success, and business outcomes like profitability, safety, inventory control and retention, as reported in this 2022 Gallup study.

“This isn't just something that feels good,” says Dr. Kirmayer. “This is something that has very tangible, practical and financial considerations.”

A big misconception that Dr. Kirmayer sees are people choosing to keep their personal and professional lives separate. You already have friends outside of work, so why make it complicated?

“A true friend at work actually gets us something different than our outside friendships do,” she says. “But it’s also okay to have different expectations and boundaries for a workplace friend. It might not look exactly like what my other friendships look like. It doesn’t have to be as intensely close or vulnerable or disclosing. There's so much nuance in terms of what type of a friend and the levels of closeness.”

Not every friend needs to be your ride-or-die. A low-stakes “yoga and brunch once every few months” friend is also wonderful in its own way.

How can I turn my work friends into real-life friends?

Slow and steady wins the friendship race, says Dr. Kirmayer. “When we go slow, we can get a sense of how the other person is showing up in this relationship.”

Connect and collaborate at work. Ask them if they can give you some feedback on your upcoming presentation. Or plan a brainstorm session together. Leaning on them for help is a great way to plant the seeds of a potential friendship.

Step into a new environment. It might be hard to make that friendship switch when you’re both sitting in your cubicles in a stuffy, fluorescent-lit office. Ask them to grab lunch at that cute restaurant down the street, or take them to your favorite coffee shop.

Change up your conversation. Maybe you two have only talked about the stressful project you’ve both been working on. Now’s your chance to find out more about their life outside of work. What brings them joy? Do they have any travel plans? What do they like to do on the weekends?

Be vulnerable. Open up about who you are, what your experiences are and how you see things. It signals to the other person that you’re open to sharing and that you want to build that deeper connection. Feeling safe and trusting is at the core of all friendships. And that goes beyond just talking about your weekends.

Any tips to maintain healthy boundaries with my friends, in and outside of work?

It starts with your own personal boundaries, says Dr. Kirmayer. What are you willing (and not willing) to talk about at work? Can I trust that if I tell you something, that you won’t go around saying it to everyone else in the office?

Other things to talk about with your new potential friend is: “How are we going to exchange feedback?” and “Are we going to talk about work outside of work? What if I want to talk to you about work-related stress?” One person might want that space to vent, while the other would rather keep things separate.

You can say something like: “I really need a weekend where we don't talk about work-related stress, but I know this was a hard week for you. Please know that it's not that I don't want to support you. I'm thinking of you. You're on my mind. I want to spend time with you. Just for myself, I really need a moment to disconnect,” says Dr. Kirmayer.

The more transparent you can be, the more your friendship will benefit.

How can we still be friends if one of us leaves our job?

Validate your feelings. It’s normal to feel a bit of grief when they leave. That person you spent eight hours a day with, five days a week is now gone—and suddenly, you’re having lunch alone again and there’s no one to gossip over Slack with. “It’s important that you honor those feelings without judging them or trying to qualify how valid they are,” says Dr. Kirmayer.

Talk about how your relationship will change: The reality is, you’re both going to have to put in more effort now that you won’t be seeing each other or talking every day. But just because your communication looks different, doesn’t mean the friendship is fizzling out. Figure out a schedule, cadence and communication style that works for you. Maybe it’s a Thursday night phone call. Or regular coworking dates. Or virtual lunch hangs if you’re both in different cities. It’s important to express to them how much your friendship means to you and that it extends beyond where you both work.

Find new common ground. “It’s tempting to hold on to the thing that initially brought you together,” says Dr. Kirmayer. “You might be really wanting to update this friend on the latest office scandal. But friendships that are the most likely to survive these types of changes are the ones where you then bring new things into the equation.” And aren't stuck in the past.

What if someone doesn’t want to be friends outside of work? When is it not a good idea?

Sometimes, your work friend might just need more time to build a more holistic connection with you that extends outside of the office walls. Be respectful of that and try not to force anything, suggests Dr. Kirmayer. “Forced vulnerability does not feel good for anyone.”

You also want to pay attention to how your nervous system feels. Do you feel safe? Do you feel like you can be your true self? Or do you have to pretend to be someone else around this person? Are there parts of you that aren’t being celebrated? Do you feel left out around this person? Or, do you even have the capacity to take on a new friend right now? “Those can be clues that there's something going on that might not lend itself to a friendship, at least in that moment,” adds Dr Kirmayer.

Not every connection you make at work has to turn into a full-blown friendship. They can provide unbiased feedback, advice and guidance that a close friend at work couldn’t.

What if a work friendship goes sour?

This is a very real fear—and the reason that some people hesitate to turn a work friend into a real friend. Friendship breakups suck on their own, but one that might affect your career too? It can almost feel too risky to even try.

“There's a level of risk inherent in any type of new relationship that we're building,” says Dr. Kirmayer. “We never know how things will go. What if this person rejects me? What if we become friends but things turn sour and it's really awkward at work? What if there's competition? A helpful reframe is to start questioning: What if things work out? What if I make a great friend? What would that be like? How much more enjoyable would my work days be? How might that benefit me professionally?”

The risk of losing a friend doesn’t outweigh all of the positives you could gain—personally and professionally—with your new bestie.

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