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Why closer office friendships strengthen your business: Richard Branson

Friends with (health) benefits

Two women laughing at work

(AMV Photo/Getty)

I’ve met some of my closest friends through my work, and I’m delighted when our employees at the different Virgin companies tell me the same thing. In most jobs, people spend more time with colleagues than with family and friends, so why not turn professional relationships into real friendships? A warm and collegial atmosphere can only benefit your team and your customers.

The guidelines you put in place on this subject will shape your company’s culture for years to come. Some managers frown upon their staff having fun at work, becoming the best of friends or even falling in love, but I disagree. At Virgin, we’ve managed to create a fun, inclusive, energetic atmosphere at work, and the friendships and romances that have flourished have enriched our lives—we’ve celebrated many employee marriages over the years.

Strong personal bonds encourage employees to collaborate and help them stick together through tough moments. A couple of years ago, after Virgin Money acquired the British bank Northern Rock, I travelled the country, welcoming the new employees into the Virgin Group. One of my goals was to get a better sense of the atmosphere at the branches, and I was thrilled to find that at many offices, there were not only husbands and wives working together but sometimes their sons and daughters, too. There is no stronger endorsement than when an employee tells a relative that a company is a great place to work, so I knew our new business would fit well with the Virgin Group.

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I guess I must have said something similar to my son, Sam, because he has decided to follow in the footsteps of his sister, Holly, by taking a position in our London office, where he will work with our non-profit foundation Virgin Unite and many of the other companies within the group. I’m looking forward to seeing them both when I’m at that office—such a great treat for a proud father!

We’ve also been able to use the welcoming atmosphere we’ve created to make our large number of employees—around 50,000 today—an asset rather than an obstacle. Other companies of this size might become rather impersonal, but we use our large size to give employees the freedom and opportunity to move between businesses in the group.

Jean Oelwang, for example, moved into the position of CEO at Virgin Unite after working in another role at Virgin Mobile Australia. We also run transfer programs that allow employees to swap companies for set periods of time, which our staff at Virgin Australia and Virgin America say are tremendously beneficial. These programs have helped the companies share best practices and better understand one another.

Such flexible policies encourage collaboration, such as when digital experts from across our group get together to “hack” various projects. On any given day, I might see Virgin Trains’ social media team working at the Virgin Media office or the marketing group from Virgin Limited Edition (our luxury hotel business) heading over to our space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, to share updates and tips.

READ: Office Romance is Good for Business »

Some would say managers should avoid forging personal relationships with employees because it can make hard personnel decisions even more difficult. To my mind, that’s the point. When you start up a company, you and your employees either give the business and the team everything you’ve got, or you shouldn’t bother with the launch at all. And if you work together through thick and thin, but despite all your efforts are forced to let an employee go, then that decision should be difficult—it should hurt.

Making the decision today to focus on creating a warm and respectful culture throughout your company, rather than to narrowly focus on profit, will undoubtedly pay plenty of dividends in the long run. When you’re starting out, it can be difficult to attract the right talent; you’ll find it a lot easier to do so if you can offer employees a pleasant working environment along with a mission that matches their ambitions.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies