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Making Work Friends in a Remote Environment

With remote work on the rise, two conflicting trends are now in play. Employee turnover has risen because employees tend to feel less connected to the company and coworkers in a remote environment. Ironically, however, many of these same employees who are job searching are looking for remote work opportunities.

Employers are challenged with bridging the gap. Creating a cohesive environment that both allows for remote flexibility yet promotes internal relationship building.

Employers may see the benefit of fostering a collaborative, team-centered work culture. Managers may put energy into remote team-building activities. At Employers Advantage we hold internal weekly coffee breaks to chat about un-work-related topics and we start all work meetings with a joke because there is value in laughter. There are online quiz games and “get to know your coworker” activities galore. Articles aplenty have been written around navigating work culture in a remote world. These are all impactful and necessary exercises that we recommend.

I think employers are missing a key aspect of work connectedness, however. Traditional, in-person workplaces are made up of departments, divisions, teams, etc. But all of these are ultimately made up of individual people. And in a typical brick-and-mortar workplace, these individuals have friends. Not just teammates or cubical mates, but “Work Friends.” Your Work Friend’s day-to-day job may have no overlap with yours, you may never be in the same meeting, and you may not even necessarily know what their daily job entails. But you get lunch together and chat in the morning as you settle in for the day. You catch up on Monday mornings as to how your weekend went, complain about sports wins/losses, and maybe occasionally grumble about your life partner. You most likely never see a Work Friend outside of working hours, but you are thankful to have them in your life, and, most importantly, they may be a subconscious contributor to why you stay at your job.

A CNBC article states, “Real friendship is the key to our long-term career success, health, and happiness—the basic sense of belonging, purpose, confidence, and satisfaction that we crave.”

EmployEEs, how do we make Work Friends in a remote environment? EmployERs, how do we enable our employees to develop Work Friends in a remote environment? (Disclaimer: Work Friendships must still be appropriate, have boundaries, and bear in mind company policies.)

EmployER Suggestions

Managers and supervisors are like the parent in the room. Management cannot drive the Work Friendship process. They can only allow for it to happen. To do this requires vulnerability. Why? Because a lot of Work Friendships blossom over a shared frustration, which will most likely be tied to work. Moreover, Work Friendships can be distracting, thus managers assume this distraction will negatively impact productivity.

• Assign “work buddies”. There can certainly be work benefits to partnering up with employees. Work coverage, for example. But consider partnering up coworkers across all departments. And do not assign specific tasks or output. Just let it be. Work buddies can be a resource for one another. This is the person to ask silly questions when you are not comfortable asking your manager.

• Encourage your staff to have breakaway meetings, virtual water cooler chat calls, virtual lunches, and remote coffee breaks WITHOUT you. You do not necessarily need to encourage this but allow them the freedom to vent to someone besides management. Embrace this vulnerability. Trust that these interactions strengthen the employee’s connectedness, positively impacting the overall environment.

• Do not stifle reasonable amounts of idle chit-chat. Fifteen minutes of lost work time talking about a podcast will not break overall productivity. Chronic turnover, however, will.

• Provide channels for employees with similar interests to connect. For example, a Slack Wordle channel or a group chat for runners.

EmployEE Suggestions

Work Friends offers an interesting perspective. Work Friends understand your personality, personal likes and dislikes, hobbies, etc. But they also know firsthand where you are spending your time virtually during working hours. They understand your boss’ quirks, coworkers' annoying habits, and staff meeting vibes.

• Create conversations around shared interests. For example, if you are having difficulty balancing work and childcare and have a fellow coworker with small children, consider reaching out. Obviously, not all employees are comfortable sharing personal information. Maintain boundaries and “read the room.”

• If you have a seemingly unimportant question, ask a coworker as opposed to your manager. This may seem small but asking a coworker, “Do you think I need to be dressed up for that internal all-hands call?” is healthy.

• Although Zoom calls pet appearances have lost some of their novelty, allow the space around you to reflect, reasonably and appropriately, some of your personality. After all, this would most likely be the case in your cubical or office.

• Support your “Work Friend.” If they are frustrated with work, provide empathy, support, guidance, or simply listen.

So go find your remote Work Friend!

Have a side chat about your haircut and message your Work Friend the eye-roll emoji when Kathy in finance lectures you again about expense report deadlines. (Kathy, feel free to send the head exploding emoji to your Work Friend as well since employees continue to turn in expense reports late!) Remember, however, that the intent isn’t to promote gossip, drama, negativity, and toxicity. But rather, Work Friends provide levity, they offer unbiased but informed work advice, and they make you laugh or extend a listening ear. Work Friends may even encourage you to apply for the internal promotion, motivate you to stay engaged and collaborate, point out troubleshooting tactics, and provide style-flexing suggestions.

We have lost a sense of comradery in the workplace. Remote work arrangements have taken that from us. But remote work has given us so much more. Time, flexibility, gas money, etc. Acknowledge that we need to bridge this gap. A New York Times article titled “A Year Without Our Work Friends” said it best. “Having a job should not be this hard.”

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