It can be tricky to find the perfect balance between professional and social relationships with colleagues. Should you treat everyone equally in a strictly professional way and tell them you don’t add co-workers on Facebook because “business is business”? Should you become friendly with a few of your favourite colleagues and spend social time at work during breaks? Or should you spend social time outside of work with your work friends and hit the bars, go hiking, shopping, or whatever your choice of activity?

It’s hard to say, and it really depends on the company culture, the size of the company and the industry of your organisation, as Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert, tells Forbes. While you may personally not enjoy social situations, you may feel forced to attend out-of-office work events if you get accused of not being a team player. Or you might want to extend your personal social circle to include a couple of your colleagues, but your office might have a conservative atmosphere and no one really seems to socialise with each other.

So, how do you find the right balance, and what do you need to consider when creating social relationships with your colleagues?


Socialising at work increases happiness.

The first suggestion to finding the right social balance at work would be to let yourself enjoy the office environment. Humans are social beings and according to social psychologists, belonging to a group and forming social relationships is a basic need alongside food and shelter. This means that people have a natural desire to connect with others and this is especially the case when you spend a long time with the same people.

“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” – Aristotle, in Politics

Trying to be professional and keeping your distance from your colleagues can be your strategy to finding the right social balance at work, but don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re only human and it is absolutely normal to want to bond with your co-workers. And if being burnt by a work friend in the past is making you feel uneasy about forming social relationships with your colleagues again, just be cautious and don’t share too much about your personal life, but don’t necessarily take away the happiness opportunity from yourself.


Socialising at work can improve productivity.

Having open and transparent conversations about non-work-related topics can be a source of motivation, and this is especially so when you support each other’s successes. Being happy from having social bonds with colleagues can add to your job satisfaction, which can add to a positive company culture. In turn, you tend to be more productive, honest, and motivated.

Building good relationships with your colleagues can also improve teamwork and encourage creativity. Feeling supported by your co-workers, having your ideas heard, and being able to share innovative solutions all contribute to creativity and collaboration in the workplace. According to Dr. Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist and executive coach, this is because socialising with co-workers and getting to know each other on a deeper level ultimately increases engagement.


Some people can’t socialise with colleagues.

You might be a social butterfly that wants to become friends with your co-workers and let them into your personal life. While having social time with your colleagues is a positive thing to have in your work life, it’s also important to accept that not everyone can fit into your desired office social settings.

Consideration of your colleagues’ personal circumstances is important when building meaningful relationships at work. A mum who has to leave work at 5PM on the dot to attend her son’s parent-teacher interview can’t go out for drinks after work to just hang out. A dad who picks up his kids from school everyday after work can’t join your weekly dinner. A colleague that has a 2-hour commute to and from work might not want to check out the new Japanese place down the road with you after work.

While it’s important to manage your disappointment when a colleague can’t spend out-of-office time with you, it’s also important to remember that too much social time at work can produce feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction for those that can’t attend.

“…it’s also important to accept that not everyone can fit into your desired office social settings.”


There are bigger issues at play.

Socialisation at work isn’t just a black-and-white situation where colleagues spend personal time with each other to strengthen their relationship and enjoy each other’s company. Society is complex, made up of vastly different people from different backgrounds, and so is your workplace.

There is evidence to suggest that race plays a part. According to a 2013 study, employees who are racially dissimilar to the majority do not necessarily experience closeness with colleagues after social interactions. This means that some consideration is required about how a demographically different colleague (e.g. racial minority, or a female in a majority-male environment and vice versa) might have a different experience to you in social settings.

Also think about this scary statistic from 2008: 14.4% of the Australian population reported as having experienced anxiety disorders in the 12 months prior to the survey. And with social phobia being one of the most common types of anxiety disorders at 4.7%, it’s not surprising that some people would have emotional issues that relate to being in social situations with colleagues.


The type of social interactions matters.

While a lot of people enjoy hanging out with their colleagues on a regular basis, there is evidence to suggest that the degree to which you socialise and the type of social settings matter. Depending on the type of interaction, it can actually lead to people no longer feeling comfortable.

Cy Wakeman, a careers expert, sheds some light on the topic of appropriate social interactions with work colleagues. According to Cy, what’s important is what you’re using social relationships for, not whether or not you get to know your colleagues. It’s suggested that these relationships should be focused on building each other up rather than to talk or complain about work. Activities like “team building, gathering your entire team together outside of work, rewarding your whole team by bringing them together to celebrate success” are recommended as the appropriate types of social events with colleagues.


Your position matters, too.

Following from the appropriate types of work social events, Cy also mentions the caution that needs to be practised in building social relationships depending on your position at work. While colleague-to-colleague social relationships can be embraced, those in leadership level positions need to be mindful of how much social time they spend with their staff.

Being too close with your direct reports can lead to issues where you’re accused of favouring some staff over others and result in other work-life balance issues arising from the blurred line between professional and personal relationships.

Instead, Cy suggests picking the right moments to be a part of your staff’s personal lives. For example, events to celebrate life-changing moments such as a wedding and a baby shower are definitely ones you need to attend, in order to show your support and care. However, it’s important to treat all employees equally in this respect.


So, how much social time should you spend with colleagues?

Research done on the topic of socialisation and its correlation with job satisfaction all seem pretty aligned. Social time shared with your colleagues can satisfy a basic human need of forming social relationships, and this can in turn improve your job satisfaction, leading to increased productivity and happiness at work. However, there are a number of factors to consider when you try to decide how much social time is too much to spend with your co-workers. And the appropriate amount and type of social interactions you have with your work colleagues depend on several different factors. You need to consider your company’s already existing culture, the personalities involved, personal circumstances of colleagues that you want to spend time with, and your position at work.

The best way to balance your work-social relationships would be to consider all these aspects that are relevant to your work environment and take a really considered approach. For example, if your office is made up of majority middle-aged people with a lot of home responsibilities, you might want to suggest having a fortnightly or monthly picnic during work hours. If your company only has a few employees and there is no one that you can consider to be your equal in terms of position, you might need to settle with the light and funny conversations you have with your boss in between meetings. The most important thing to remember when approaching colleagues with social invitations is that you keep the professional boundaries and distance that you require, not just to be “safe”, but out of respect of your colleagues who may not want the same kind of social relationships that you do.