Labor Day: A creation of the labor movement, dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
When the first Labor Day kicked off in New York City back in 1882, its purpose was to celebrate the working class, those blue collar workers whose physical contributions had built the country. Its organizer, the Central Labor Union, hoped to exhibit "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, and to host a festival for the workers and their families.
Labor Day soon became more than a day for a family picnic, evolving into a commemoration of the struggles that workers have won and those that lie ahead.
One hundred and thirty three years since its inception, Labor Day is upon us again, and with it a time to reflect on the different challenges facing employees today. There’s plenty of discussion to be found on the uncertain economic realities of today’s workers, including stagnant wages, the need for more overtime regulations, the unemployment rate, lack of paid vacation time and maternity leave, and the “gig” economy.
But let’s talk for a moment about another troubling aspect of modern working life: the weak social bonds.
Adam Grant recently wrote about this issue in an eye-opening New York Times op-ed piece, “Friends at Work? Not So Much.” The workplace used to be a place where friendships bloomed, but in today’s job climate work has become a more transactional zone where socializing just gets in the way of efficiency.
Grant cites some interesting stats that reflect the changed attitudes about collegiality with colleagues:
“In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 percent. And in nationally representative surveys of American high school seniors, the proportion who said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends dropped from 54 percent in 1976, to 48 percent in 1991, to 41 percent in 2006.”
This trend appears to be far more pronounced in America than other parts of the world, where employees more commonly invite their closest colleagues to their home or even go on vacation together.
Why is the social fabric of work deteriorating? Employees now work remotely sometimes or completely, but studies show that this isn’t the reason for the decline in work friendships. The primary culprit is that employees job hop (not always voluntarily) far more than in the past. Without the promise of long-term employment, people simply don’t invest in friendships at work the way they used to.
There’s something else, too. Grant cites a study that shows how more people place a priority on leisure time than ever before. As he puts it:
“A generational shift has reinforced the transactional mind-set in American workplaces, regardless of sex and religion. Although the evidence is strong that different generations generally want similar things out of work, the value placed on leisure time has increased steadily. When the psychologist Jean M. Twenge led an analysis of work preference surveys completed by high school seniors in 1976, 1991 and 2006, 17 percent of baby boomers strongly valued more than two weeks of vacation time, compared with 25 percent of Generation X and 31 percent of millennials.”
From this perspective, it’s easy for people to convince themselves that the goal of work is to just finish up and get home licketysplit. Employees focus on being as productive as possible while they’re at work and dispense with niceties like building work friendships.
But it’s a mistake to think that friendships curb productivity; in fact, the reverse is true. Grant cites research which shows that groups of friends outperform groups of acquaintances in both decision making and effort tasks, and notes that friends are more inclined to share information and help one another.
As for what will help foster friendships, studies show that social events don’t really cut it. Playing together and eating together have proven to be effective. Some companies build alumni networks, which help employees look at potential friendships as long lasting even after they move on to other jobs, and events like Bring In Your Parents Day also help.
But there’s a glaring omission amongst Grant’s suggestions: volunteering. When employees engage together for a common cause, whether through volunteering or giving, unique opportunities for interaction and bonding ensue. Volunteering as a team in the field fosters teamwork at the office, and when you’re out building a Habitat for Humanity home the hierarchical lines that often separate us disappear.
I talk a lot about the link between employee volunteering and employee engagement. At the root of this increased engagement is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself, an inspiration that awakens the senses and makes us feel more connected to the world at large and to our companies specifically. Friendships are at the root of this connectivity, encouraging us to feel less isolated and more included.
Regardless of how large your network is outside of the office, volunteering together at work creates a special shared experience that breeds a social legacy to build upon. This is particularly true if your company offers a volunteer and giving platform - like Causecast’s - that invites a social and interactive experience before, during and after volunteer events. These budding friendships have a powerful foundation of giving back to keep them going, and they also fuel business outcomes like increased employee satisfaction and engagement.
This Labor Day, whether you’re an employee or employer, take a moment to reflect on how friendships at work make jobs less laborious, literally. Then consider how volunteering together creates an excellent way to spark these gratifying social bonds.