Can work friendships survive in a virtual space?

Last updated on 
October 16, 2020

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It’s almost impossible to downplay the importance of work friendships. Studies show that when people have friends at work they perform better, are more engaged and feel happier. Having work friends can make surviving a toxic workplace possible, it can boost wellbeing and morale, and has a key role in improving teamwork. But in our pandemic world, when so many teams have shifted to long-term remote work, what happens to those work friendships? Can they survive in a virtual space – or is lockdown revealing just how circumstantial our professional relationships are?

Why work friendships matter

Making friends at work is rarely part of the job description, but if we look back to the days of normal office life, it’s surprising to see the extent to which work friendships shaped our day. Eating lunch with coworkers, enjoying a coffee break, having a quick chat before meetings… our friendships were part of the fabric of our working lives. The importance of these interactions can seem heightened in retrospect, particularly if you’re one of the many people who’ve struggled to adapt to remote work and take little pleasure in eating lunch alone at your desk.

Our friendships at work differ from other friendships because they’re often based on convenience and necessity. They’re convenient because they require very little effort – and if someone sits beside you and you see them every day, it’s easy to turn to them if you have a problem. But because of our basic human need to feel connected to our peers, they’re also necessary. When you remove the casual chats and shared lunches, the social aspect of work disappears, causing many people to feel isolated and lonely – which can seriously harm wellbeing, both in and out of work.

The impact of remote work on work friendship

Remote working can have a detrimental impact on our work friendships by forcing us to be proactive to maintain them. If we can no longer access our old shared spaces and rituals, we need to reach out and make extra effort to interact, just like any long-distance relationship. “Work friendships die pretty quickly with a lack of shared experiences,” says Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship, “Unless you work to create a new pattern and way of being together.”

So if we want our work friendships to continue, we need to approach them with intent – something we may not have done before. While this takes effort – and might not seem very important in light of other problems right now – it’s absolutely worth it. “A lot of us derive most of our social needs from those work relationships,” says Ho Kwan Cheung, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Albany. “They’re what give people a sense of belonging in their job.” When you factor in the feelings of loneliness, stress and alienation that remote workers often face, it becomes even more vital that we do all we can to keep work friendships going. But how can we do this remotely?

Building strong work friendships remotely

The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we approach many areas of our lives, and how we bond with work friends is no different. According to Shasta Nelson, work friendships are based on consistency, vulnerability and positivity. Getting to know people takes care of the vulnerability factor, and positivity occurs when we enjoy spending time with people. But since we don’t have the ability to meet in a shared space each day, we need to cultivate the consistency factor ourselves – and we can do this by consistently working social interactions into each day.

☕️ Make space to connect

There are many ways to weave virtual social interactions into your work day. You can commit to lunchtime phone calls with work friends, or set up video calls first thing on Monday to chat about what you got up to on the weekend. You can instant message throughout the day, take online classes together, schedule regular virtual coffee breaks. You can create casual, non-work related spaces, like Slack channels, to share news and chat. You can set up virtual wellbeing classes and hold fun remote competitions. Whatever you do, it’s key to actually see each other’s faces now and then, as this allows us to connect on a deeper level, making our interactions more meaningful and engaging.

Create casual virtual spaces for everyday chat

🧠 Build social cadence

According to an 18-month study on virtual relationships, one of the most important factors in forming friendships remotely is something called “cadence”. In this context, remote workers have cadence with a colleague when they understand who that person is and can predict how they’ll react. Cadence is especially important when you work remotely as it allows you to anticipate when we’ll communicate with our coworkers and how these interactions will go. If we don’t have cadence with colleagues, we might find it tricky to contact them, or our interactions with them will be frustrating – things that mean a friendship won’t be able to develop.

🙌🏾 Make bonding a company priority

The good news is that if you take steps to create social interactions throughout the day, cadence is easy to develop – but managers should set the stage for employees to develop it. Small things can make a big difference here – e.g. if you’re hosting a team video meeting, open the line 10 minutes early so team members can chat and catch up. Creating opportunities for employees to meet up in-person is also super beneficial, so if you’re able to organize team training days or fun meetups, do. Even if you have to socially distance, it will still be effective for building relationships.

A recent Memory Sales team meetup to enjoy some of Norway’s finest scenery 🇳🇴

Ultimately, making and maintaining work friendships will almost always be harder to do remotely than in-person, but it’s by no means impossible. It may take effort, but if you want to alleviate loneliness and stress, and ensure people can find meaning and purpose in their work, it’s essential.

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