Working with Friends

In 3 of the 4 jobs I’ve held in the last five years, I’ve worked together with people who were already friends before I took the job.

Here are a few of my advices based on that experience.

#1 Communicate Openly and Regularly

When you start working together, something in the relationship changes. Not necessarily for the bad.

It just does.

I believe it is always good to communicate your friendship, but when working together that becomes even more necessary. Take time for chitchats in coffee breaks, and keep encouraging each other.

Also, if things go wrong — and they will — communicate. Instantly.

A few months ago at WooThemes I emailed a potential partner on a project that my friend Joel and I were working on. The language I used was not professional enough. Joel let me know instantly instead of getting irritated with me.

#2 Accept Criticism

Mere communication about things going wrong will not suffice. You also need to process it and deal with it.

A few years ago — while working for Ichtus — my friend Rudina was leading a student discussion on a movie we’d just watched. I was dominating the conversation while I should have been more observant and supportive; helping out where I could. The result was that Rudina was upset with me as I had ruined the discussion.

She was entirely right.

It’s strange that even though I knew this straight away, my initial thought was to rebel against her being upset. I wanted to be defensive. I luckily didn’t. I accepted her criticism and our friendship got stronger because of it.

And interestingly, our ability to work together as well.

#3 Admit When You’re Being a Dick

But you don’t have to wait until your friends point out bad things. In a lot of cases you will know before they do.

Don’t assume that they will understand that you didn’t really mean it when you reacted irritated. Don’t think they will not be hurt if you put them on the spot.

Take the initiative to apologise.

So many conflicts could be avoided if people just admitted their wrong at an early stage. It is quite a challenge to confront someone else, so if you realise that something went wrong, don’t wait for the other to confront you.

I’ve always had a problem with dominating conversations and while working for Ichtus that was an often recurring problem. Luckily, after some time I started realising it if things went wrong, and I learned to step up and point out my mistakes and apologise — even though it was hard.

I cannot stress enough how much an apology can contribute to a friendship. It shows that you don’t want to put your ego above the relationship. And that’s quite a big thing.

#4 Don’t Ruin Their Trust

When I was teaching at the ETF in Leuven I was in quite a unique situation. I was teaching education (based on my educational sciences degree) while busy obtaining my theology degree. That made that I was teaching some of my fellow theology students (some of them being friends) and I was being taught by my co-workers (some of them being friends).

I’ve always tried to push extra hard so I would not put my friends in a difficult spot. If I’d been slacky with an assignment, I would have put my friend-professor in the difficult position of having to give me a bad grade. It’s not nice having to crit your friends. So try your best to avoid having your friends needing to do this on your assignments.

The same goes for work. You should always aim to be the best you can be, but working with friends should make that aim even stronger. What if — when joining WooThemes — I would have sucked at my work? It would not just reflect on me but also be bad for my friend’s reputation.

#5 Stop Talking about Work

Working with people that you also see outside of the work environment, can make it difficult to wind down from work. A few months ago my wife and I went out for food with a few friends, and Joel and his wife were there as well. Without thinking too much about it, I brought up a few topics that were work-related.

Afterwards Kim pointed it out to me. It hadn’t been the first time that had happened (and it wouldn’t be the last). First of all, it’s not nice when two people in the group talk work stuff all the time and by doing that exclude the rest of the group from the conversation.

Second, if you’re friends, you should also be connecting apart from work-related stuff. Make sure that you do, or your friendship might become a “workship”.

#6 Have Fun

The above seems to be quite negative, but that’s only one side of the coin. In tons of— if not most — cases, working with friends is awesome. It means that you don’t just share an interest in your professional activities, but that you also have a genuine interest in each other’s person.

Maintaining friendships can be a lot of hard work. When you get home from a long day, you don’t always want to go for a drink with that one person. If you’re working with friends you get to hang out with that person even without a lot of extra effort. How cool is that?

You can also develop a great amount of running jokes. To the degree that a mere look is already enough to crack up laughing.

Know that a lot other people out there are working in an environment that isn’t safe at all. They constantly worry about what to say, what to do and what to worry.

Cherish the fact that — at least with your friends — that is not the case. You can be yourself and that feels good. If you can work with friends, work will be a lot more fun.