11/05/2015

By Phil Greenwood, Commercial Director at Iron Mountain


Close friendships at work – a force for good or a professional minefield for HR? Opinion appears to be divided, and the truth is likely to fall somewhere in the middle. Most commentators agree, however, that they are an inevitability in a 21st century world where everyone is so busy, the office is the only place they still have the time or the energy to make friends.

According to a US study, up to half of adults now meets at least one of their closest friends at work. This trend is confirmed by a recent survey of office workers in the UK and Ireland. Both suggest this is due to a lack of work-life balance, the unwelcome side effect of our always on, technology-enabled life.

However, a review of 18th and 19th century wills now accessible electronically has revealed that work friendships are nothing new. They have existed and mattered for centuries. It seems we have always wanted to connect emotionally with the people we face every day across a desk or a corridor.

Wills may seem like an unusual place to look for such information. Many people regard wills as dry legal documents and statements of death, when in fact they are a celebration of life. A unique record of the people and things we value most.

We explored just a handful of the vast archive of 41 million wills, but even so we noted that some things transcend time, background and geography. One of these is the extent to which work colleagues often become the closest and most trusted of friends.

For example, WWII code breaker, Alan Turing, who died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 aged just 41, shared his possessions equally among his mother and a small group that included two colleagues from the University of Cambridge.

Similarly, the zoologist Charles Darwin, who died in 1882, stated in his will that that I “give and bequeath to each of my friends, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley Esquire, the legacy or sum of one thousand pounds sterling free of legacy duty as a slight memorial of my life-long affection and respect for them.” Both were close colleagues: Hooker was a leading botanist and Huxley a biologist.

The economist John Keynes, who died in 1946, named his Cambridge University colleague and friend, Richard Kahn as an Executor and Trustee in his will, asking him to care for and protect his professional and personal legacy.

Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, became engaged to her editor, Norman Warne just before his untimely death just a month later. In her will she left her entire financial stake in his publishing firm to Norman’s nephew, “my friend, Frederick Warne Stephens.” Upon the death of her husband he also became entitled to all the royalties and copyrights for her work.

The wills reveal that colleagues do not become part of our lives because we are too busy, tired and stressed to meet anyone else. We let them in through choice. Days spent together in the same space, as well as shared goals, values, achievements and disappointments forge enduring bonds. And it seems these bonds were often strong enough to last until and even beyond death.

Some people worry that close friendships at work could impair judgement and objectivity or cause emotional tension. Set against these risks is the evidence that work friendships boost happiness, productivity, engagement, job satisfaction and employee retention. Perhaps we should trust the evidence of history and embrace all these positives with a culture that allows friendship to flourish. It’s going to happen anyway.


Members of the public can order scanned copies of the wills for a fee of £10 from www.gov.uk/wills-probate-inheritance/searching-for-probate-records.