Changing Relationships with Your Coworkers

By: Emma Hickey

Some of the closest friendships are formed in the workplace. It only makes sense, considering the amount of time you spend there and the consistency with which you see your coworkers. Besides my roommates, I don’t have a single friend I see daily as I do my coworkers. Friendships that begin at work can be really special--they are formed in something of a pressure cooker, after all. Work friends understand the intricate dynamics of this place where you spend almost all of your time. They know all the people who populate your life. They’re familiar with the professional challenges you face and they listen to your personal life unfold in daily installments, rather than in one lump debrief as another friend might. Work friends are there for it all. Work friendships also face a challenge that other types of friendship do not–they exist within a hierarchy that cannot be ignored. 

Friendships formed outside the office have power dynamics, of course. Everything does. But the hierarchy of an office is set in place in order to be defined and acknowledged. This can make work friendships challenging, especially when your closest friend in the office is someone you manage, or someone who manages you. Work friendships can also change quickly due to external forces neither person has much control over. That’s true for all kinds of friendships, but if one person is promoted into a role that gives them more power than a friend, or power over that friend, that causes an inorganic change in the friendship that can be tough to combat, or at the very least involves some thoughtful navigating. 

I have a bit of experience with this. When I worked on a Customer Experience team, I was briefly moved into a temporary leadership role supporting a cohort of remote, seasonal Customer Experience Associates. My coworkers were some of my closest friends and I was worried about how my role change–even though it was only for the holiday season–would affect my friendships. Luckily, I didn’t have to manage any of my friends, but I did shift from spending my days with associates to spending my days with managers and supervisors. Suddenly, I was attending weekly leadership meetings and though my influence was limited, I had a seat at the table while decisions were being made that would affect my friends, and down the line when my seasonal role ended, would affect me. As it turned out, the biggest impact this role change had on my work friendships was that I was less in-tune with everyone’s professional and personal daily lives than I had been before. I was more removed from my friends because I didn’t work as closely with them anymore. It was definitely a strange position to be, but because I wasn’t managing my friends, I didn’t have to navigate anything too tricky within those relationships. 

The bigger change I experienced in a work friendship at this time was between me and my former supervisor. We’d always been friends, but when I shifted into this new role that was more of a peer to her, and then at the end of the holiday season shifted back into a subordinate role and reported to her directly again, our work friendship had definitely changed. When my leadership role was over and the hierarchy between us was back to how it had been before, our relationship stayed firmly in the peer space. To me, it felt like after I’d seen behind the curtain of how the leadership team worked, there was no turning back. If I had to guess, I’d say she probably felt similarly. When we resumed our weekly 1:1 meetings as supervisor-direct report, we were even more candid with each other than before. We let go of all the decorum that surrounded the supervisor-direct report relationship and started using our regular meetings to walk around the city and eat snacks in cafes. We may have even grabbed an afternoon glass of wine during a 1:1 after she put in her two weeks notice. I think we were able to navigate our new professional relationship because we were both on the same page. Our friendship was definitely altered by the hierarchal changes in our work relationship, but it worked for us. 

I also experienced this kind of shifting work friendship due to a shifting professional relationship from the perspective of a former manager who became a peer. One of my direct reports on the seasonal remote team joined the permanent Customer Experience team as an associate at the same time I transitioned back to an associate role. I went from being the person who approved her vacation time, evaluated the quality of her work, and help create policies that affected her work-life, to the person who sat next to her and complained about new policies along with everyone else. I’d tried to be so professional as her manager, but when we became peers, I felt like a whole other side of myself was exposed. It was weird at first because although I made no effort to act any differently around my former direct than I would any other peer, I was acutely aware of the shift in myself. Once the novelty of it all wore off, though, she became a great friend. If our work relationship hadn’t had the texture created by it’s shifts, I’m not sure we ever would have gotten to the point we are now. 

I’ve been lucky with the changes that have occurred in my work friendships. There was definitely the risk that going from a peer to a part of management to a peer again could have negatively altered some of my closest friendships and I feel fortunate that they didn’t. I think that’s a little bit due to how I navigated those changes, but more so due to the grace of my work friends, who are now just my friends. The hierarchy of a workplace and the impact that has on work friendships definitely alters those relationships, but in my experience, these changes only deepened my friendships. 

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