How to sustain office friendships when working remotely

Having great connections with the people we work with every day can shape our entire experience of work, and in turn, impact our overall happiness.

Can a deliberate, virtual effort save office friendships? Three experts share ideas to help keep workplace friendships alive.

As more and more businesses adapt to remote work, informal, hallway conversations seem like a distant dream. The office friendships that are built on these workplace interactions are now dependent on what happens through a screen.

“People who had built a genuine friendship at work will maintain that friendship naturally and easily despite being remote,” says Ross Judd, author of Cultural Insanity.

However, the office friendship, where you're friends with someone because you like them and you work well with them, will require a degree of effort to maintain.

Why do friendships at work matter?

According to Gallup research, having a close work friend increases fulfilment, productivity, and even company loyalty. On the flip side, loneliness in the office can affect both professional and personal wellbeing. 

“Relationships are an inherent part of our lives – whether we’re at home or at work. Having great connections with the people we work with every day can shape our entire experience of work, and in turn, impact our overall happiness,” says Jen Jackson, CEO of employee experience company Everyday Massive.

Neuropsychologist Dr Hannah Korrel, author of How to Break Up with Friends, says: “Friendship and camaraderie is a buffer between yourself and the fallout of the stress of work. Whether you have stress, or you don't, having that buffer improves a person’s ability to cope, manage under pressure and enjoy the place [where] you work.” 

A survey analysis of respondents who transitioned to working remotely during the pandemic has shown a direct link between productivity and social connection, according to Boston Consulting Group. 

Judd notes that office friendships have direct benefits for businesses because people can work together effectively. 

“When you've got healthy office friendships and people who genuinely enjoy working with each other, your business will benefit in terms of overall productivity.”

There’s good reason to invest in work friendships, especially now. But how do you do it without the support of casual workplace interactions?

Add it to your calendar

“You do need to be more rigorous and diligent about scheduling conversations with your friends and colleagues,” says Judd. 

Judd notes that in a remote working environment, everyone must make a conscious effort to connect more frequently because you can’t rely on the spontaneous interactions that occur at work.

“It might feel forced and unnatural at first, but you’ve just got to do it,” says Judd. “You can schedule individual calls or team calls where people are expected to turn up. This not only keeps a level of accountability but also maintains that level of connection which people need.”

Conversations via live video-chat services like Zoom, Google Meets and Teams don’t change the nature of interactions. In some ways a virtual conversation needs more active listening.

“You have to make sure the person is actually listening because the risk is that communication drops out for a minute or people talk over one another,” Judd says. 

“When talking virtually, stop to check in every now and then with ‘Did that make sense?’ or ‘Do you have any questions on what I've just said?’.”

Be part of a group chat

“In terms of hallway chats, if you don't already have the group chat going, it’s time to start it,” says Dr Korrel. 

“Texting can be for fun and occasional throughout the day but be sure to keep an eye on this to make sure it doesn’t slip too far into poor productivity.”

According to Jackson, asynchronous communication, such as messaging platforms and chat, can be an effective means for casual interactions, off-topic banter and sharing common interests. 

“We have Slack channels specifically for general chitchat, the occasional trivia quiz, and sharing photos of pets and food,” she says. “It’s a good reminder that aside from being colleagues, we’re also human.”

Engage in healthy banter 

Dr Korrel says keeping text chat light-hearted is a good general principle. 

“Most people will feel fairly open to discussing ‘safe’ topics such as sharing updates, discussing what surprise birthday present to buy for a colleague etc.,” she says. 

“‘Unsafe’ topics tend to include things like making disparaging comments and personal remarks about a particular person and/or the company as a whole – and people may not feel comfortable entering these types of conversations, particularly if they are in writing.”  

Certain people need to engage in good, healthy banter to work well at work, says Judd.

“If I was leading a team and I knew I had some people in my team that needed that kind of conversation, I would be consciously making a point of calling them on a regular basis.”

Cultivate a culture of healthy friendships 

From an organisational perspective, Judd suggests building a culture that nurtures office connections to occur. 

“The most effective way of nurturing healthy office relationships and friendships is through a culture program,” says Judd. 

“When you align people to a purpose and a strategy, you are finding common ground for people to connect.”

Judd explains that when people unite for a common purpose, they come together and proactively build those relationships in a much healthier way than if you just leave it up to chance.

As teams continue to work remotely in the next stage of COVID-normal, nurturing virtual social connections will play a key role in enhancing people’s overall wellbeing and productivity.

December/January 2022
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