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Will you be my (work) friend? The new reality of making and keeping a work friend in the hybrid world

May 14, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

This year, I made a work friend. It might not seem like a big deal, but in this new world of remote work, it’s not as easy as it used to be. And it’s relatively new territory for me, as a 24-year-old who’s held an assortment of office and remote jobs since graduating in 2020. 

Colin and I have yet to get after-work drinks (though we’ve discussed the idea, which is basically the same as getting drinks), we have a few well-trod jokes, and he’s the person I Slack when I have some good gossip (which is also harder to come by in a remote-first workplace).

To me, there’s something a little awkward about making friends at work. I feel a little like an eager eight-year-old, ready to give a BFF matching heart necklace to the first colleague who I have more than a passing cordial relationship with. (Jane, you’re the next target.) But what are the pros of playing it too cool? Probably whatever the work equivalent is to playing alone at recess.

I’m not the only one floundering to expand my social network with rusty social skills. COVID has shrunken many people’s circles, and relationships at work are now mostly impersonal Zoom calls where half your colleagues probably have their cameras turned off. As a result of increased social isolation, loneliness has spiked in the U.S., as a 2020 Harvard study found that 36% of Americans reported feeling lonely.

Is making a few new friends at work a solution to this loneliness problem? And could it also do something to help slow The Great Resignation? I spoke with experts and people who have successfully forged friendships at work to get their best advice on how to make a work friend.

It’s all about proximity

The general sociology of friendship still applies to the alien world that is the office. Theorists have inferred that friendships can be forged due to literal closeness.

Friendships are created by a series of interactions, says Jack Schafer Ph.D., who boils it down to the following formula:
Friendship = Proximity x (Frequency + Duration) x Intensity. 

In the adult world, work provides a natural structure for friendships to form the way school worked for kids. “Friendships, especially new friendships, where you don’t have a ton of history and shared experience to fall back on, really bloom in a container,” explains Julie Beck, columnist for The Atlantic’s The Friendship Files.” 

Work takes up a big chunk of our day and repeated interactions are built into the structure of our jobs, making it easier to find friends in the workplace.

“People spend a huge part of the day—and ultimately their lives—with their colleagues, so it’s no surprise that friendships can form in a professional environment,” say Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, former hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast and authors of Big Friendship

There’s also an assumption that coworkers have a shared interest that led them to the same job, says Beck. Within the structure of work, people often bond with those who are the most similar to them. 

“The people at work to whom you gravitate as potential friends are usually those with whom you share interests or a sense of humor,” says Lydia Denworth, science journalist and author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.

They also bond over shared experiences says Denworth. “Even meeting punishing work deadlines can be made fun if you’re doing it with someone whose company you enjoy.”

Of course, all this remote work can make it tough to make deeper connections with your colleagues. In pre-pandemic times, when everyone went to an office, it was easier to befriend someone you physically saw every day. “There are a lot of great benefits that working from home provides for people, but making friends is more difficult,” says Beck.

And while scheduling an informal video chat might not be as organic as sharing some gossip at the office coffee machine, Beck says that making an effort to create repeated interactions is still meaningful online (if not even more important). Beck had a coworker who started a job during the pandemic, so he set up monthly Zoom meetings where he could connect with his new colleagues. This small action created a structure where friendships could thrive, she says.

Connecting outside the office

Once you make the initial connection, find areas of commonality, and bond over the work, kick things up a notch and get more personal by sharing details about your life outside of work and schedule extracurricular activities—this is the best way to turn a work friend into a real friend. This can happen naturally, explains Beck, like getting coffee after work.

“The workplace is good for racking up the repeated exposure that you need to go from acquaintance to friend, and then at some point, you do have to break that barrier and take it outside of the office,” says Beck.

Sometimes plans fall through the cracks, but Beck pushes people to try harder: “You have to reach out more than once” and push through the awkwardness when trying to make plans with a friend from work. 

Friendships can be a slow build but that doesn’t mean you should give up, says Beck. “Everyone’s lives are really busy. People are often really grateful if someone takes the time and energy to set up an opportunity to socialize, that they can just say yes to.”

How to keep a work friend as a real friend

Just like work, friendships aren’t always easy. “Friendships require effort. The more responsibility you take on as an adult, the busier your life gets, the more that becomes true,” says Beck.

Keeping a friend from work after someone leaves for a new job can be hard, since you lose the day-to-day interaction and shared experiences. But staying close with a friend is all about being intentional with your time and communicating, just ask Matt Damon and Ben Affleck or Frog and Toad.

Just be honest with your friend, say Sow and Friedman. “Communication and listening are your best bet here. In our experience, when one of us is feeling weird about something in the friendship it’s not always a total surprise to the other person,” say Sow and Friedman. They also suggest literally asking “Hey, how do we maintain our friendship past the work stage?” and then go from there.

Sharing—but maybe not too much

There are of course a few drawbacks to work friendships. Office hierarchy can make these relationships complicated. Work friendships are arguably at their best when they’re between equals. It can be awkward to be friends with the person who signs your paycheck.

“You can be friendly with your boss, but it’s unlikely they will be among your closest friends, and usually that’s for the best,” says Denworth. “The best friendships are reciprocal with a fairly even give and take. That’s hard to pull off when one person has authority over another,”  

As a result, managers might find themselves sitting alone at lunch. “It’s lonely at the top,” says Denworth. “About 20-30% of people say they are lonely at work, but 50% of bosses say they are lonely.” But while some might be hesitant to build close friendships with their direct reports, Denworth clarifies that many people have good friendships with their managers while maintaining some professional boundaries.

Sow and Friedman’s main principle of friendship, the Shine Theory, encourages people to see their friends as collaborators rather than competitors. It’s “a rejection of the scarcity mentality the workplace is imbued with,” say Sow and Friedman, who have found that confiding in colleagues has helped their careers.

“If you work in such a way that you think helping someone is going to cost you power or a promotion or a salary bump, that says more about you and your workplace than it says about the colleague you won’t give up a leg up to,” continue Sow and Friedman. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but ideally you’re generous with your resources and expertise to help those around you succeed and in turn you will be successful as well.

Does having friends at work even matter?

“I’m not here to make friends,” says every reality TV star ever and also potentially some of your coworkers. There’s no shame in not wanting to make friends at work, but it can make things more enjoyable, says Beck. 

“People with good friends at work enjoy coming to work more, they are more productive and more efficient, and they are more likely to stay in their jobs. Personally, over the long haul, having good friends is as important for your health as diet and exercise,” argues Denworth.

We spend an inordinate amount of time at work, and the friends we make there—people who laugh at our stupid jokes and share the best gossip—can make our jobs feel less stressful. And in a time when there are no shortage of things to stress you out, having a few more friends, even if you only see them on Zoom, can’t be a bad thing.

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