Friends & simcha: a simple start to restore workplace culture

ALSO: 'the end of the office as a spreadsheet'

Over the last month I’ve spoken to a wide range of businesses and without exception they’ve all mentioned that their employee resignation rate is off the charts right now.

One leader explained one of the challenges of stemming this tide, sharing that one quitter had said ‘when we were in the office every day there was this incredible culture that I loved feeling part of. Now it just feels like my job, and I found another one that pays more’.

Shout out to anyone getting paid what they are worth, but it does beg the question how can our firms keep a special feeling when we don’t see each other as much.

One of the most crucial questions in Gallup’s famous workplace survey asks ‘do you have a best friend at work? It’s a question that could easily be scoffed at, especially when we hear business gurus talking about strategy being the differentiator of business success, or about uniting workers around a shared purpose. Having a best friend feels so frivolous in comparison to the weightiness of purpose.

But Gallup are in no doubt about the reason they ask it: 

‘Our research has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job’.

In the research having a best friend at work can more than double a worker’s engagement.

In contrast they found that only 8% of workers who didn’t have a best friend at work were engaged with their jobs. (Relatedly there is good evidence to suggest the old truism that workers resign from bosses rather than companies - so in aggregate, the relationships with our colleagues are far more significant than we might imagine).

Having a strong friendship with others isn’t just about making the boring hours go more easily, friendship can be measured in better customer satisfaction ratings, lower rates of workplace misdemeanour and higher levels of service.

But having friends isn’t not always the norm, even before the pandemic one UK survey found that 40% of workers didn’t have a single close friend at work.

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.

Irrespective of what we may eventually grow to accept, today many of us see face-to-face encounters as more meaningful. In the last week this has been reflected in political debate - politicians demanding doctors see patients in person (even if it is less efficient) or the seeming contradiction of holding a climate summit that itself produces millions of tons of greenhouse gases rather than, say, hold it on Zoom. Doing things in person seems to be a way of signalling that they matter more.

I chatted to an inspiring business founder this week who shared with me a distinction that he found especially helpful, he told me about how Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about a word, simcha, that appears several times in the Old Testament. While simcha (the ch is pronounced in the throat like in the word Chanukah) is generally translated as joy, Sachs says ‘in fact, simcha has a nuance untranslatable into English’ because while happiness or joy can be experienced alone:

simcha, by contrast, is not a private emotion. It means happiness shared. It is a social state, a predicate of “we,” not “I.” There is no such thing as feeling simcha alone’.

It feels aligned with a fabulous email last week from reader Peter Cosgrove about the last newsletter. He cited the writer Douglas Rushkoff

We are making everything ultra efficient. How many steps you take, how quick we get things done, for instance video conferencing vs face to face meetings. However good a video call is you really cannot see if their irises are opening and they don’t allow us to establish real rapport. All of the things that we’ve done to establish rapport that we’ve developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, they don’t work, you can’t see if someone’s breath is syncing up with yours. So the mirror neurons never fire, the oxytocin never goes through your body, you never have that experience of bonding with the other human being. And instead, you’re left like, “Well, they agreed with me, but did they really, did they really get me?” And we don’t blame the technology for that lack of fidelity. We blame the other person.

It feels like he’s describing a life robbed of simcha. If we’re experiencing a version of work without friends and without the joy of shared experience then it’s no surprise that colleagues might ask themselves if they couldn’t improve their situation by doing the same job for another firm.

Bosses wanting to stem the tide of resignations might ask themselves what they could do to get their teams to dial up the simcha with old desk buddies this autumn.

Share this with your best friend

Oliver Burkeman was for a long-time the Guardian columnist charged with exploring self-improvement and lifehacks. Along the way he realised that by obsessively trying to conquer the now he was skidding inexorably into the future, obsessed with reaching it with a shorter To Do list rather than savouring the moment. Come for the productivity hacks, end up finding a better way of living - this is a brilliant listen.

Apple / Spotify / website

Header image by Mazen Kerbaj

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