When Brian Goldberg learned on Facebook that he and a coworker had a mutual love of craft beer, he invited him to lunch at a sports bar where his own favorite brand was on tap. While gobbling burgers and throwing back cold brew, Goldberg snapped a picture with his new buddy, posted it on Instagram and tagged it #bestlunchever. “It’s great when you find coworkers who have interests aligned with yours.”
Social networking has made it easier to form personal relationships with coworkers. On sites such as Facebook and Instagram, where people share their likes and dislikes, family photos and new hobbies, people gain insight into colleagues that could provide the basis for forging stronger workplace bonds.
“In some ways, [social media] has replaced team-building events that used to take place off-site,” says Carlos Garcia, founder of Nobox, a social media marketing firm in midtown Miami. “You get to know the people you work with on a deeper level.”
An online poll released in January found workers reported that social technologies in the office simplified communication, fostered stronger relationships and increased collaboration. Jim Greenway, executive vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison, the global talent mobility consulting firm that conducted the poll, believes those benefits to office relationships positively affect how much we like our jobs and how loyal we feel to our workplaces.
“Most of us want to be friends with coworkers,” Greenway says. “When you look at hours you spend in the workplace, it’s often more than at home. The more relationships are built and fostered, the more productive the environment.”
Indeed, research by Gallup found that strong social connections at the office can make employees more passionate about their work and less likely to quit their jobs. Social media connection that opens the door to face-to-face conversation can play a role in deepening those friendships.
As the number of adult users on social networks increases, so does “friending” co-workers. The typical Gen Y Facebook user has an average of about 16 friends who are co-workers, according to a study by Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. In addition, a 2012 HRinfodesk poll of readers found 40 percent connect with co-workers on social networks through personal or professional accounts.
How much social networking contributes to building friendships may depend on organizational support. Some businesses ban all social media use in the workplace and block access to social networks through the corporate information technology system. Others have launched their own internal social media platforms, formed groups on Facebook or posted company updates on LinkedIn or Twitter.
At Nobox, Garcia not only welcomes social media, he has woven it into the office culture. Garcia allows his 40 employees to bring pets to his office and encourages them share photos on Twitter and Instagram, and to tag them #noboxpets. “It has helped bring people closer within the company,” he explains. “It also benefits our brand because people see us as a place where co workers are friends.”
For his mostly millennial staff, combining work and personal life via online social networking creates deeper engagement, Garcia says. He notices his workers follow each other’s status updates and comment on pictures and videos about their travels, favorite restaurants or family events. “It breeds opportunity for in-person conversations.”
Some find connecting on social media opens the door for bonding with colleagues outside the office. Maria Andreina Garcia, digital account director at Nobox (and no relation to Carlos) said she noticed a co-worker was a fellow foodie and regularly posted photos of scrumptious-looking meals at interesting local restaurants. Now, Maria Andreina asks to join her on occasion. She also shares recipes with her on Pinterest.
In January, Maria Andreina went cold turkey off social media for a month as a personal social experiment. She noticed it affected her work life. Co-workers would talk about posts or information they had shared online that she hadn’t seen. She has now returned to the cyber scene. “Social media definitely adds value to office relationships.”
Sharing with co-workers on Facebook or other social networks can have other benefits. A Fort Lauderdale law office manager who is single found that by sharing pictures online of herself with her elderly mother, her coworkers learned she had family responsibilities, too. “They had no idea how much I was balancing,” said the manager, who asked not to be named. “When they see you as a whole person, they can give you more emotional support.”
Creating ties on social media platforms can also bridge generational gaps. At a time when two out of five people work with colleagues spanning all four generations, social networks offer a way to break down barriers and make others seem more approachable.
Greenway at Lee Hecht Harrison says that when he was assigned to mentor a younger manager, he went right to Facebook, friended him, and learned he was a drummer in a band. “It opened the door for good conversation, and I was able to develop a relationship on a different, more personal level.”
Of course, letting coworkers into your personal life carries risk. Some of us don’t consciously think about who will be reading every single status update. A simple post like “I hate Mondays” or any comment that implies you don’t really like your job or boss can hurt you at work.
Or let’s say a team project is due and a coworker notices your stream of updates from games like Candy Crush. Now your work ethic is in question. Even a political comment or religious reference on social media could create friction with an office friend who disagrees with your viewpoint, warns David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a training solutions firm.
And, then there’s the potential to make a coworker feel excluded. After posting his #bestlunchever photo, Goldberg returned to his office to find another office buddy angry because he wasn’t included. “Sometime you’re going to leave someone out. With social media, people are going to be more aware of it,” Goldberg says.
For oversharers, self-policing is essential, say experts. Exposing drama in your personal lives on social media sites could affect how colleagues treat you at work. (One woman I know shared details of a bad breakup, and was mortified when her boss brought it up with her.)
Another warning from experts: Don’t let social media platforms become your default forums for high-stakes conversations or disagreements with colleagues. “It takes lots of conversations to build a relationship, but only one on social media to destroy it,” notes Maxfield.
Each social network has its own way of allowing you to edit content and customize who gets to see it. Experts suggest you set your privacy settings, review them regularly and be smart about what you post.
As the traditional ideas of work/life separation evolve, the way co-workers connect online will, too. Says Maxfield: “On the whole, it’s overwhelmingly positive.”