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The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
Lisa Beebe

Lisa Beebe

Writer, Culture Amp

When something momentous happens at work, do you immediately feel the urge to discuss it with a favorite colleague? Do you often take lunch and coffee breaks with that person? Have the two of you developed inside jokes and the ability to communicate using only eye contact?

It sounds like you have a work best friend – or maybe even someone you consider your “work spouse” (a term that isn’t without controversy). This type of close platonic relationship with a coworker is usually characterized by “high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.”

While just two in 10 U.S. employees report having a best friend at work, a SHRM study found that 85% of employees with close friends at work believe it has positively impacted their careers. They feel more satisfied with their jobs and have a strong sense of belonging at their organization.

A work best friend can lift your mood, provide emotional support, and make you more likely to stay with the company. But relationships are complex, and this includes the relationships you have with your closest coworkers. It’s worth asking yourself: What are my relationship boundaries at work?

Establishing boundaries in workplace relationships

Healthy boundaries are part of every successful relationship, including the ones you build in the workplace. You’re setting a boundary whenever you communicate your needs, wants, and expectations for a relationship. Setting boundaries is a way to express who you are and what’s important to you.

It may feel odd to set boundaries in a platonic setting, but it makes sense – especially at work, where your top priority is to do your job. Defining boundaries in your workplace relationships allows you to build meaningful connections without neglecting your role or responsibilities.

Setting boundaries at work: Examples to consider

To help you define the boundaries that make sense in your workplace relationships, think about when you feel focused and able to do your best work. These questions will help you get started:

When do you do your best work?
Consider setting a boundary to protect this time. This might mean blocking off time for focused work in your calendar – or letting a work friend know it’s not a good time for a daily chat.

What is your preferred communication style?
If a coworker has a quick question about one of your projects, do you prefer they ask it by Slack, email, phone, text, or in the appropriate Asana task? If your work best friend often messages you during the day, you could let them know that you can’t respond when you’re busy.

Drawing a line between work and your personal life

Even if you have a work best friend or a work spouse, the people you work with are not your family. But like any other relationship, work relationships will have ups and downs. When things get complicated, boundaries add clarity.

The following questions can help you create clear boundaries between your work life and your personal life.

How personal do you want to get at work?

It is easy to overshare about personal matters when you have a best friend at work, but if that trust ever gets broken, you may find yourself wishing you had used more restraint.

While it’s one thing to ask for support on a tough day, avoid making it a habit to air your grievances at work – whether they’re personal or work-related. If you complain about or confess something to a work friend, remember that they may repeat the conversation to someone else, making you the subject of workplace gossip.

To go even further, consider setting a boundary that you won’t discuss personal matters on company time. If a work friend asks you for personal advice, you could ask them to discuss it over lunch.

Does your close workplace relationship leave others feeling excluded?

If you develop a close work friendship with one person, others may notice and feel left out or concerned about preferential treatment. Whenever possible, include others in your friendly conversations and activities. Expanding your circle will ensure you don’t feel isolated if (and likely when) your work best friend ends up leaving for a different opportunity.

What would happen if this work friendship ended?

It’s sad when any friendship ends, but it’s unlikely to affect your financial situation if it’s a friend you made outside of work. On the other hand, a falling out with a close work friend can have a larger impact on your life – especially if your former friend turns others against you or makes accusations.

What if this friendship turns romantic?

All of the above topics, from understanding workplace policies to keeping your personal life private, become more complex when it involves dating a colleague. Even if you follow official policies and keep things discreet around the office, be aware of the potential risks before you cross the line.

If your potential partner is someone you work with closely, talk with them upfront to establish clear boundaries. Keep in mind that if you break up, you may still have to see this person – or even collaborate with them – on a daily basis.

Communicating your boundaries at work

Once you know what boundaries you want to set, the next step is to share them with others.

Some boundaries may require approval. If you want to set a boundary that affects how you work, when you work, or what you work on, discuss it with your manager first to ensure your expectations align.

When communicating with coworkers about your boundaries, be calm, clear, and confident. If it feels appropriate, explain the reasoning behind the boundary. You may need to share the boundaries more than once and in different ways, especially if they’re a change from previous norms.

Setting boundaries creates stronger workplace relationships

Relationships thrive when people are honest and open about their needs, wants, and expectations – and this type of communication builds trust in the workplace. Setting boundaries isn’t a one-time activity. Relationships evolve, and your boundaries may need to evolve, too. Be willing to revisit them and update them as necessary.

Eventually, even your valued relationship with your work best friend is likely to change. Promotions, high-profile assignments, and new hires may shift the power dynamic. If one of you leaves the company, you’ll have to decide how – and maybe even if – you’ll maintain the friendship. Whatever happens, knowing and respecting each other’s boundaries will clarify the situation.

Illustration of two people high-fiving

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