Supporting workplace friendships on remote teams
Engagement 4 minute read

Supporting workplace friendships on remote teams

Megan Orr | February 8, 2022

Workplace friendships are often a crucial part of an employee's level of engagement in the workplace. However, remote work has made these relationships more challenging. Learn how employers can support their employees' friendships—and why they should want to.

Employees naturally spend a lot of time with their coworkers and likely have things in common since they chose the same workplace/industry. However, remote work has made the forging and maintaining of workplace friendships—and relationships in general—more difficult. 

Continued restrictions, health and financial worries, and mental health struggles mean that people aren’t able to prioritize their relationships in a meaningful way.

HR Grapevine recently asked if we are “experiencing the death of the office friendship”. With many employees working remotely indefinitely, a survey found that 41% of respondents said “that not being able to socialize with colleagues is what they missed most” about the office.

Remote work has undoubtedly impacted workplace friendships, with these relationships either becoming more difficult to form and maintain, or in fact more tight-knit and exclusive.  

Many leaders struggle with striking a balance between encouraging camaraderie and ensuring that workplace friendships don’t interfere with employees’ ability to do their jobs. 

A recent Inc. article by Alison Green of Ask a Manager tackled the topic of workplace cliques. A reader wrote in to Alison concerned that their employees were potentially too cliquey after receiving a negative exit review that caught HR’s attention. The reader asks if they were in the wrong for creating a workplace culture that encouraged friendships, even though it seemed to be at the expense of the employee that felt left out—and then left. 

Alison pointed out that while workplace friendships aren’t usually an issue, prioritizing those relationships in the name of culture fit is exactly “the kind of thing that has given the term ‘culture fit’ a bad name”. Where the reader describes culture fit as being employees who all have similar interests and are around the same age—the employee who felt excluded was older—Alison points out that culture fit is more about things like being passionate about the work or having a similar drive and work ethic. 

Workplace friendships have always been a bit of a balancing act for both employees and employers, but remote work has amplified that. 

Employees who have worked primarily remotely over the last two years have likely struggled to build relationships with their coworkers and, in turn, have likely missed out on participating in their company culture in a meaningful way. 

As The Atlantic writes, research has shown that “having a close work friend increases fulfillment, productivity, and even company loyalty” while conversely,
“loneliness in the office can affect both professional and personal well-being”. 

So what happens when you take the actual work place out of the equation?

Remote work has replaced the ease of proximity: pre-meeting exchanges, water cooler chats, random hellos in the hallway, and so on. With fewer workplace friendships (or even conversations), employees may be at greater risk of disengagement and burnout, which can impact their overall productivity, performance, and wellness. 

Here are some ways that employers can help their employees keep workplace friendships intact:

  • Host fun activities somewhat regularly. Whether it’s a virtual happy hour or an online trivia game, give team members the opportunity to get together over video chat (or in-person if everyone is comfortable and restrictions allow) and not talk about work. 
  • Encourage collaboration on projects. Many employees might not be connecting with their coworkers because they aren’t physically working together, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together on projects. 
  • Facilitate small talk. At the beginning of meetings, let people chat briefly about their weekend or whatever else so that they can have a sense of normalcy. 

While remote work might not be the death of workplace friendships, the impact of workplace friendships on productivity and retention means that employees and employers need to consciously—and conscientiously—foster genuine human connection.

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