Free Agents

Maybe it was the times.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s—even after 9/11—the people I worked with were friends. We socialized after work, attended each other’s weddings, and held heart-felt happy hours for our friends who left the company, voluntarily or not, to pursue “other opportunities,” as the official e-mail usually read.

Those were happy times. The telecommunications sector of technology where I worked at the time was shedding jobs like a German Shepherd drops hair in Spring. Too many happy hours said “farewell” to displaced co-workers. But not all. I can’t count the number of e-mails announcing a happy hour at Harpo’s or Keith’s or Casa Gillardo for no reason other than “we need one.”

Then it all changed. From 2003 to 2006, I remember only one happy hour that drew more than half a dozen people, and that was mine upon leaving the world’s largest brewery.

The place where I work now once had a vibrant social life. People were friends. They looked out for each in ways that mere co-workers cannot. When a friend has one-too-many, you have no qualms stepping up to give him a ride home and mention to him the next day that getting plastered with co-workers doesn’t look good. Do that to a mere business acquaintance, and you risk big problems. (Ask your HR department.)

Is our litigiousness to blame? Is it the two-year-and-out loyalty patterns? I don’t think so. In 1999, America was litigious and I rarely hung around a place beyond 24 months. But during those two years, I hung out with my co-workers and developed life-long friendships. Since then, I feel anonymous and disconnected. I like many of the people I work with, but I don’t really know them.

We spend nine, ten, twelve hours a day, five days a week with the people we work with. We should be friends. We should be close. Friends have each others’ backs and cheer each others’ successes. Colleagues cover their own rears and politely applaud when some nameless face wins some insincere plaque for showing up to work on time. It’s cold and impersonal and dreary to live and work this way. And it’s bad for business.

Even though I have been a technologist for 15 years, some of my best friends were in HR, sales, client management, and marketing. I worked with these people every day. I drove miles and rented hotel rooms to party with them on New Years or when some band they knew was playing in Illinois. My development team and I wanted to make them look brilliant in front of the clients. We were a team.

Like modern athletes, though, we’re all free agents now. We avoid closeness and friendship, and it’s costing our companies a lot of revenue. Disconnectedness, mere cordiality, builds barriers between people, departments, and functions. Work is work, and cooperation happens only in the context of policy instead of swelling naturally from our mutual respect and camaraderie.

While 2007 is still young, let’s make a commitment to become friends with the people we work with, the people we depend upon for our living, and the people with whom we spend half our waking hours. Let’s make work part of our social life.

I miss my friends.