The phrase “we met at work” has particular meaning for me as I write this essay. My friend Judy died this past weekend. We met at work. In this case, work was the Marketing Research Department of The New York Times in the 1980’s. We were a close-knit group for the most part, half single, the married people mostly childless and after long days we’d often go out for a drink before heading home. We were yuppies, proud to be working at The Times.
I knew Judy less well than I knew the others, until one day she came into my cubicle with a confession. She had applied to join the Peace Corps and, atypically, an assignment had become available if she could be ready to leave within three weeks: Costa Rica! She was thrilled. “Would I mind doing her a favor,” she asked? I was so impressed with her selflessness and her impending adventure that I said yes before hearing her out. Judy asked me to be her Power of Attorney, sell her condo, ship her furniture home to her father, pay off her mortgage and invest any money left over into something safe!
Thus began a strange and wonderful friendship.
Aristotle talked about three types of friendship: friends of utility are people who are your friends because you have usefulness to each other; friends of pleasure are friends with whom you share an interest or an activity; and friends of virtue are people who like one another for who they are, their values, their personalities. I have no idea how to classify Judy, but I do know that my friends at work, and particularly from that time and place, continue to be very important to me. Much has been written on the importance of warm and friendly relationships at work and the role they play in developing a corporate allegiance and employee retention. In fact the 2013 State of Friendship Report (produced by Lifeboat in conjunction with Edge Research and See Change Strategies) indicates that more than one in three adults has met at least one of their closest friends at work. About 10% of people have met their spouses at work.
The Gallup Organization, in their seminal work identifying the 12 key dimensions that describe a healthy workplace – or one with high levels of four critical outcomes –employee retention, customer metrics, productivity, and profitability –found that one of the dimensions was employees who said they had a “close” or “good” or “best” friend at work. Research demonstrates that workers are more engaged and more satisfied when they have friends at work. These friendships allow people to rely on each other and to share the good times and the bad as a team; the best companies set up activities to help build this sense of teamwork and togetherness. The best managers do too.
When Judy came home from the Peace Corps she settled back in southern California. Years later she had a son, who died in infancy and she picked up, traveled cross country and moved in with me for a while. She cooked and taught my sons how to bake Tres Leches like they do in Costa Rica and teased them about being incapable of filling ice trays. And just as suddenly she moved out, living in Pennsylvania, and Reno and Texas and Arkansas and finally Florida. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. About two years ago, we went down to visit her in Florida and she asked me for a favor. I was the only person she knew who could afford to come to Florida frequently. Would I be her medical Power of Attorney and make all of her end of life decisions for her? I said I’d do whatever she needed.
I didn’t make any decisions, of course. By the time Judy decided she was ready to give me the Power of Attorney, the medical professionals determined that the disease had affected her competence to make that decision.
For the past 24 hours I’ve been reading the tributes to her on Facebook. So many of them are written by colleagues from newspapers all around the U.S. She was loved.
I am so grateful for those friends whom I met at work.
“God has blessed me with an amazing family, friends and work colleagues that have been my joy, my support, and my sanity. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”