While eating bagels at staff meetings, having drinks during happy hour or chatting during a baseball game, the staff at Nevins and Associates have become more than co-workers.
The Hunt Valley-based public relations firm has 15 employees - including one who has been known to knit blankets for special occasions in fellow employees' lives: babies, weddings, birthdays. Staffers know about one another's lives and families. In September, most of the office plans to attend an employee's wedding.
"The more you know somebody, the better you will work with them," said Kirstie Durr, the firm's vice president and senior accountant. "You understand their personality and how they work."
Some people spend more time with their co-workers than with their spouses or families, which makes getting to know them an important part of the job. Workplace experts say having healthy relationships with co-workers can increase job satisfaction and help boost morale in the office.
"The more you feel support from an organization, the better job you will do," said Michael Kahn, a personal coach and psychologist in Severna Park. "It creates the spirit of a team and helps you deal with the pressures of the job."
It helps to be able to lean over and complain about the boss with someone who understands, or discuss a flat tire that made a worker late that day.
"In a small office, people feel like that's a separate family," Durr said. "If something is happening in my personal life, I would feel comfortable sharing that with people in the office and seeking support from people in the office."
Establishing camaraderie helps the firm produce better work, she said, because people are not afraid to ask for help or ideas from others. Staffers often congregate for brainstorming sessions for a project.
"I can bring people into a program or an initiative where they might not otherwise be involved," Durr said. "It's determined by the organization's leadership. A leader drives the personality of the organization and how much the employees feel like they are a part of it. If employees are empowered, that really drives a sense of accomplishment and belonging."
Not all co-workers can or will become friends. Even so, having a cordial relationship is important, experts said.
John Putzier, author of Weirdos in the Workplace and president of FirstStep Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Prospect, Pa., said some co-workers make coming to work horrible.
Just like any relationship - friendships, family, roommates, teammates - associating with others at work requires people to be courteous and considerate, which doesn't always happen.
Yes, some behavior is annoying, such as incessant talking, frequent cracking of knuckles or repetitive tapping on a desk. But if it's harmless, Putzier said, why make a fuss?
On the other hand, there are people in workplaces, he said, who dress inappropriately or perhaps have severe body odor - circumstances that can infringe on others' ability to do their work. In those situations, it's better to ask the boss to intervene or find a polite way to address the problem.
Putzier doesn't recommend that managers foster or prevent co-workers from building friendships. He says they should get involved only if co-worker relationships become too distracting or have a negative effect on the company.
The way workers interact depends on the atmosphere or culture of their workplace. It can be difficult for employees to learn anything personal about one another in offices where workers are seated in rows of cubicles or don't have any reason to speak to each other.
Some workplaces are competitive, which makes it difficult for people to trust one another or want to spend time together away from the office, Kahn said.
People don't have to be friends with co-workers, but they should at least be friendly, said Marjorie Brody, founder and chief executive of Brody Communications, a workplace consulting firm in Philadelphia.
She said that even in large companies, departments or pockets exist where people can get to know one another.
Some people might argue that work is a place where people should be expected to be professional, not popular, Brody said, but making friends at work has advantages.
"Getting the job done is critical, but if you're really going to move and have options in your career, it's about the relationships that you form," Brody said. "We're looking for ways to connect as human beings."
Friendships take time to develop, especially at work. It helps to establish rapport, Brody said, but workers shouldn't reveal too much personal information in the workplace. That can change the way people evaluate others' work.
"If you are not a colleague of that person, you don't want to let your guard down - like getting drunk together," Brody said. "You might end up reporting to that person and that really changes the relationship."
Who's that next to you?
Some of the different personalities in most workplace settings:
The know-it-all: This person is always right and will let you know when you are not.
The gossip: Be careful when making personal calls at work. Pretty soon everyone in your office will know that you made a doctor's appointment or your mother is sick. This person likes the phrase, "Don't tell anyone I told you, but. ..."
The party-starter: This person can get anyone to go out for lunch or drinks. They always know the best restaurants and bars. They may make happy hours happen and make them fun.
The sympathizer: This is the person who is always there to rub someone's back after a car wreck or if a puppy is missing.
The bully: This person intimidates you with just a stare. He or she enjoys feeling dominant and will treat others badly. Did you borrow a pen without asking? Watch out.
The drama queen (or king): So you had to park at the back of the lot today; does everyone have to hear about it? This is the person who gets miffed when the printer jams or Pat in the mailroom refuses to go to lunch with him or her.
The annoying co-worker: This is the person whose incessant talking, pointless questions and loud talking make you want to crawl under your desk.
The giver: A bowl of chocolate candy, stashes of Band-Aids or tissues, hard-to-find office supplies -- this generous soul is a blessing in the office.
The trend-setter: This person always has the most stylish shoes, briefcase, suit or hairdo. He or she always looks sharp and makes everyone else jealous.
-- Blanca Torres