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A look at the types of work relationships: Finding your people

September 20, 2022 - 13 min read


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How do work relationships affect performance?

The main types of work relationships

Relationships that go beyond work walls

How to improve work relationships

Lean on your team

Humans are social creatures. Through thousands of years of evolution, we grew to depend on each other for survival and a sense of belonging.

Our need for community hasn’t gone anywhere. It just looks different now than they did before. We look for our people at the gym, our places of worship, and — perhaps most of all — at our workplaces.

It makes sense that you value connecting with your colleagues. You can expect to spend one-third of your life at work, so it’s important that you get along with your colleagues. 

And when you find your people, it can be magical. You all care about the job, share a vision for the organization, and have similar interests. It’s no surprise that many work friendships quickly extend beyond the office — even to the point of becoming BFFs

But some organizations seem endless. Many personalities exist within them, and some are easier to get along with than others.

The pandemic might have made it easier for you to escape difficult co-workers. Working from home made setting boundaries easier and interacting with them only when necessary. But as your company returns to in-person activities (or part-time, at the least), you may need a refresher on the types of work relationships. 

Here’s a primer on these relationships and how you can foster healthy interactions with your colleagues.


How do work relationships affect performance?

Positive co-worker relationships have long correlated with improved performance, employee retention, and job satisfaction. These dynamics can help new employees learn more quickly as they pick up knowledge from their more experienced colleagues. People who socialize at work also report better overall well-being.

But having a buddy at work can occasionally be a source of stress, which can occasionally cause distractions or disrupt your focus. They can also cause tension if you’re both gunning for the same promotion or have disagreements over the details of a project you’re both working on.

This can make workplace relationships slightly difficult to navigate. But the pros certainly outweigh the cons.

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The main types of work relationships

Relationships are fluid and dynamic things. Everyone’s unique, and so too will be your interactions with them. 

Professional relationships are no different. Because of this, it’s difficult to boil them down into categories. Some say there are four types of work relationships, but others bring that number up to seven. And, as you think about your own personal relationships at the workplace, you might find some individuals hit multiple categories. 

For example, a team member can also be a work friend. A mentor can also be a manager. Keep this in mind as you review each type from our list of types of work relationships:

  1. Co-workers
  2. Team members
  3. Work friends
  4. Mentor/mentee
  5. Manager/direct reports
  6. Work spouse
  7. Life friend

BetterUp can help you improve your professional relationships to be more effective and feel more satisfied. With one of our coaches, you can sharpen your communication skills, practice setting boundaries, and become a better team player.

In the meantime, let’s start by exploring each type in detail.

1. Co-workers

This is the most impersonal relationship of the bunch. Your co-workers are acquaintances you met through your company — no more, no less. There are few, if any, interactions with these people. And those that do occur are transactional in nature, focused purely on business or pleasantries in the hallway or at the beginning of a Zoom call. 


If you’re on the marketing team of a bank, the financiers would likely be your co-workers. But beyond working for the same organization, you have little interaction with them.

2. Team members

Team members are the people on the same team as you. You see them and interact on a regular basis. Together you plan, design, develop, and execute work related to your job.

If you’re a hospital nurse, your team would be the other healthcare professionals in your unit. These are the folks you see and interact with every day. You work together to deliver care to your patients.

You might also have team members whom you see less frequently. If you’re a member of your organization’s health and safety committee, you might only meet once per week. They’re still your team members because you’re collaborating on a particular task or goal, even though you don’t work with them as directly.

3. Work friends

Work friends are the folks you interact with socially at the office. You spend time with them during your break, at lunch, or walking to the bus station together. Every now and then, you may even hang out with them outside of work.


This kind of interpersonal relationship helps you stay sane during the daily grind. You might not be friends outside of work, but they’re a great support system during the nine-to-five.

4. Mentor/mentee

A mentor/mentee connection is the highest professional relationship you can have. Your mentor is your go-to person for career guidance and advice on the toughest problems. They’re there to help you navigate the organization. This mentorship plays an important role in advancing your career and can even lead to referrals for future roles or promotions.

Your mentee is the person coming to you for that advice. They can help you stay in tune with the changes and growth of your organization. Plus, you probably had help as you were coming up — and it feels good to pay it forward.

This relationship is more intimate than a traditional work friend, but it stays within the limits of professionalism. You feel comfortable talking to each other about professional challenges and occasionally personal challenges if they affect your work. But other than that, the relationship starts and stops at the office entrance.

5. Manager/direct report

Your manager is the person you answer to. They assign you to work, hold you accountable, and help you succeed. 

Your relationship with your manager is vital because they’re the gatekeepers to your work life. They influence your salary, reputation, and workplan. They also play a massive role in your workplace satisfaction; it’s hard to justify staying at a job if you don’t get along with your boss.

If you yourself are a manager, the person who answers to you is a direct report. Your staff is there to help you meet your responsibilities to the organization by doing some of the work. But you’re also responsible for their development and overall workplace satisfaction.


Relationships that go beyond work walls

These next two relationship categories are more intimate and can quickly expand outside of your workspace and into the real world:

6. Office spouse

“Office spouse” is a colloquial term for the person you spend a significant amount of time with at work. Like your work friends, they keep you sane while you’re at work. But you have a closer relationship with your office spouse, trusting them enough to vent openly and ask for advice. This person is your workplace BFF.


7. Life friend

A life friend is the most intimate relationship you can have at work. You don’t even consider it specific to work. This person is an intimate part of your personal life, too. Even if you left the company, you would see this person regularly. 

You have fun together, laugh together, cry together. Depending on the nature of the relationship, you may even become romantically involved.

How to improve work relationships

You don’t have to be best friends with everyone at work. But good working relationships are founded on five basic elements:

  • Build trust. Trusting your colleagues and being trustworthy means you’re certain everyone is pulling in the same direction. No one is trying to undermine each other or hurt someone’s career behind their back.
  • Respect everyone. Even if you wouldn’t go out for drinks, you acknowledge each other’s skills and contributions to the team. You also know when to put aside your differences and work together on a solution.
  • Be inclusive. You welcome new ideas, even if they contradict your own. You encourage a healthy dialogue and consider their perspective in your decision-making.
  • Communicate. This means communicating clearly what you need from others, asking questions if you’re confused, and setting boundaries if necessary. If you communicate with honesty and integrity, you’ll incubate strong working relationships.

If you can foster these elements in your organization, you’ll contribute to a positive working environment for everyone.

Lean on your team

Whether it’s your first day at work, first day back at the office, or first time being a leader, you’re all in it together. Everyone on the team just wants to do awesome things together. 

Even if you don't get along on a personal level, mutual trust and respect can carry you a long way. Hopefully, with greater awareness of the types of work relationships, you can navigate your work environment without a hitch.

And if you need help along the way, BetterUp is here. Our coaches can offer advice on how to deal with a difficult co-worker, communicate more effectively with your boss, and make you look good. We can make your star shine if you're willing to do the work.

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Published September 20, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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