This is the real secret to protecting your work friendships

It's all about boundaries, which includes knowing when you need to cross them.

Eve (not her real name) and I left sticky notes on each other’s work stations. “Meet me at the wine bar.”

It was as if we’d intuited the well-established Gallup finding that, basically, everything is better when you have a best friend at work. Only, our instinct was to cordon off our friendship from the daily machinations of the office. We sensed from the get-go that work could drive a wedge between us.

I’ve formed many friendships over two decades in the workforce, none so sheltered from work-related fallout as that early one I struck up with Eve, when working and “adulting” were new to us both. Looking back, I realize that we’d hit upon something critical: work-proofing your friendships (and maximizing their benefits) means fending off the twin threats of poor boundaries and, paradoxically, rigid roles.

My friendship with Eve likely began with some sort of minor transgression of work boundaries and norms–a disclosure, an eye-roll, an experience where trust was rewarded. But it’s easy for lapsed boundaries to imperil the closeness they help to cement.

I once mentioned to a colleague that my then-best friend at work was moving house. That turned out to be a misstep because the colleague knew my work friend’s landlord, and rent control hung in the balance. It was the first but not last time that I’d need to repair a boundary.

You don’t have to take friendships completely out of the office, though, in order to conduct them with discretion. Another friend, Leah (likewise a pseudonym), overlaps with me in multiple professional contexts and we carry on a close friendship at work. Sometimes over the course of a workday we’ll communicate on as many as four different email addresses (her business, my business, that of a shared client, personal). The nature of our conversation shifts according to the conventions demanded by each. Heeding that context and staying in the right role with one another creates psychological safety. (It protects data privacy, too.)

But later on, at a work dinner, I leave it to my friend to explain the parameters of her Kosher vegan diet. And just last weekend, Leah and I bumped into one another and found time for a quick walk together. After agreeing not to discuss work at all, we switched to a social lane–which ensured that the right people back at work would still get to weigh in on the issues we intentionally didn’t discuss without them.

Staying in the right role at the right time doesn’t necessarily make it harder to be authentic with one another at work.

When someone to whom I once reported delivered bad news about a reorg in my department, she sat in one chair to convey the official position of the organization. Then she physically got up and moved to another chair, and spoke as my friend about her own thoughts and feelings. I appreciated it. We had agreed at the start that it wouldn’t be a fun conversation. But in a dark way that true friends get, it sort of was.

A client recently shared that he and his colleague, who’d spent much of a recent team meeting in the hot seat, had gone off after the intense session to get pedicures. I’d facilitated the meeting and couldn’t tell based on their professional demeanor that they were friends. I was delighted to hear that they’d decided to kick off their shoes and cool down in a spa chair after that high-pressure experience–and was equally impressed at how professionally they had navigated the difficult conversations back in the boardroom. My wish for these two is that their camaraderie can, back at work, better position them to lead the company through stressful circumstances, even as they continue to strengthen a friendship based upon mutual respect and appreciation as well as shared experiences.

Sadly, it's too easy to cordon off the one from the other. Another client confessed how hurt she felt when, after the contract of a dear colleague was not renewed, her remaining work community failed to recognize her heartbreak over the loss of her best friend at work, and its effect on her quality of life at work. "Didn't you know," she finally burst out in a meeting, "that that was my person?!" In fact, they didn't.

Boundaries at work are a work in progress. To get the benefit of having a best friend at work, you must bring back the fellow feeling you have cultivated, and put it in service of the work, and then reinvest the good work you do together in the service of a relationship that continues to enrich your life outside of work.

It's when we fail to embrace the complexity of our work relationships - by not integrating them, or embodying one role or another too fully - that things fall apart. Whether you reflexively repeat the party line on a matter that deeply affects your friend’s work life or, on the other hand, inadvertently reveal private medical information (despite the best intentions), you may find yourself unticking that box on the Gallup poll (and potentially in trouble with HR, too).

Want to hold on to your best friend at work? Understand and care for the boundaries that divide one role from another, but know how and when to cross them when the situation demands. If it sounds hard, just try it. With practice, you can navigate those moments more easily and authentically than you think.