Having friends at work is important. Not only do you have someone to grab lunch with to break up a long day, it also has a positive impact on your wellbeing and your performance.
Research suggests people who have a “best friend” at work are not only more likely to be happier and healthier, they are also seven times more likely to be engaged in their job. What’s more, employees who report having friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction than those who don’t.
The way we are working is changing due to COVID-19, however. Although workplaces began to open towards the end of the summer, the government has once again asked people to work from home where possible.
If you’re already close with your colleagues, it’s easy just to WhatsApp, message on social media or chat on Google Hangouts when working remotely. But it can be more intimidating if you don’t know your co-workers as well.
Turning work relationships into friendships
To look at how friendships bloom between workers, Beth S Schinoff of Boston College, and Arizona State University’s Blake E Ashforth and Kevin G Corley studied a global technology firm with a largely remote workforce. Over 18 months, they interviewed 64 workers with varying levels of experience several times for a total of 114 interviews. Those interviewed worked remotely at least half of the time. The researchers also observed interactions between co-workers when they did meet face-to-face.
When working remotely, the researchers found it was far harder for people to build friendships at work, which had a knock-on effect on their performance, too. “The increasing use of technology and rise of virtual work has fundamentally changed how employees interact with each other,” the researchers wrote.
“No longer can employees reliably predict when and where their coworkers will work, transforming the very ways in which coworker relationships unfold over time. This is perhaps especially true for coworker multiplex relationships, which fuse a coworker relationship with a friendship relationship and strongly affect job satisfaction and turnover intention.”
So how do you make work friends when working from home?
Don’t be afraid to connect virtually
Working from home comes with many perks, but it can be lonely. When we’re working in an office, it’s far easier to have impromptu chats with colleagues in the shared kitchen, or to get together for after-work drinks. Often, it’s these meetings in non-work settings in which we get to know our colleagues personally.
Loneliness is often brushed aside as a problem in the workplace, but it’s something many workers struggle with. So although it might feel a little awkward to message a colleague you don’t know that well, the chances are they’ll appreciate the contact. Ask how they are doing, talk about weekend plans and find out how they are coping with remote working. If you know your co-worker a bit better, they may be up for a virtual coffee break over Zoom.
It can also help to share some common ground with your co-workers too. Signal who you are and what you enjoy doing and give a little bit of information about yourself, which will make you seem more approachable.
Create an online “water cooler”
It’s also important for employers to encourage home-workers to engage with one another too. Schinoff, Ashforth and Corley suggest setting up a conference call with 15 minutes to spare at the beginning to create an “online water cooler” where people can catch up with each other.
Adding extra time onto a meeting might not go down too well with some people, but setting aside a few minutes to chat to the people around you can make a big difference if you’re feeling isolated.
Organise after-hour activities
The pub might be out-of-bounds for many people, but it’s still possible to get together virtually. Game nights and online happy hours can be a good shout for people to get to know each other outside of a work setting, even if you’re still on your laptop.
If you’re self-employed or work alone, you may not have colleagues to offer advice and support when you need it. However, there are plenty of groups on social media for freelancers and alike, which often organise networking events both in person and online. Facebook is particularly useful for finding others in your profession.