Training Industry

Content Development

  • Friends in the Workplace: Supporting Social Learning through Friendships and Fun

“Apparently, having good friends at work makes you better at your job,” a June headline in Elle Australia read. The article cited recent research published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior that explored the relationship between fun and informal learning. Researchers found that the presence of fun activities in the workplace was significantly related to overall informal learning among employees. Specifically, fun activities encourage “communication and camaraderie,” supporting the development of stronger relationships, which encourage employees to learn from each other.

Michelle Gibbings, author of “Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work,” wrote last year that work friendships support collaboration, since our brain processes information from a friend differently than it does information from a “foe.” She also cited Tom Rath’s book “Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without,” saying that research shows that employees with best friends at work are seven times more likely to be engaged.

Thanks in part to technology, social learning is an increasingly popular form of corporate training. Social media may have redefined the word “friend,” but its use in the workplace means that employees can now easily share information with each other through platforms like Twitter and Skype, as well as discussion boards and instant messaging.

Implementing fun activities is one way to promote informal learning by helping employees develop better relationships; however, researchers caution that it “should not be employed as a ‘magic bullet’ to promote informal learning, but rather as a component of a broader set of training, development, and learning support.” Technology can help support these efforts by collecting and analyzing data about employee preferences.

It can also help organizations control, to some extent, the information being shared among employees. Social learning is only beneficial if what employees are learning is accurate and useful and happens at their point of need. Many organizations are using learning networks to manage information and track social exchanges to measure informal learning in a way that we’ve never before been able to.

Research in 2015 also found that the informal learning opportunities that come from having friends at work can improve performance. However, workplace friendships can increase stress if they cause time-consuming distractions, and they can also take an emotional toll if, for example, a friend is promoted, causing jealousy. A Harvard Business Review article discussing the research concluded that organizations and leaders need to “balance the benefits of encouraging employee friendship with the potential drawbacks” and recommended that managers “make themselves more aware of the informal networks inside of their organization.”

Here are some best practices for supporting social learning at your organization:

  • Provide guidelines and tools for users to create and share content.
  • Identify subject matter experts and help them make content creation part of their job.
  • Create a workflow with multiple checkpoints to review content for accuracy.
  • Make content easily accessible using conventions such as tagging.
  • Support fun events that encourage employees to get to know one another outside of work activities.
  • Use storytelling and real-life work problems for group discussions and role-plays.
  • Don’t exclude formal learning; use social learning to complement established training programs.

Taryn Oesch, CPTM, is an editor at Training Industry, Inc.

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