Love them or hate them, your coworkers have a big influence over how much you like your job. While they may have less impact when you’re working at home, since you’re not necessarily affected by somebody fun or annoying sitting next to you, work relationships still matter, says Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.
“Research shows what you’re doing all day and who you’re doing it with impacts your well-being and happiness at work,” she says. “Work is where you make one of your biggest contributions to the world and where you spend most of your time. You’ll feel better doing those things if you feel seen and supported by work colleagues.”
When you’re remote, though, you can’t just walk to the kitchen and see others like you could do in an office break room, says Nelson.
“You also can’t go into a videoconference call and have a side conversation with a coworker or walk back to your desk while talking to a peer,” she says. “Those spontaneous conversations that proximity allows can’t happen, and you have to acknowledge that. Building relationships with coworkers when everyone is working from home requires more effort.”
Make a plan
While Nelson says it’s not a perfect metaphor, bonding with coworkers when you’re working remotely is like sending kids to school versus homeschooling them. “We know homeschool kids need their social needs met, and parents have to be intentional about it,” she says. “When it comes to working from home, we can still build social networks, but we need to be more intentional about it.”
Instead of the relying on the luxury of organic connections, find ways to make them happen.
“A lot of us have been focused on being in pandemic mode, and we put forming relationships on hiatus,” says Nelson. “It’s important to get back to what’s really important because now we’re seeing trends arise around burnout and loneliness. We may have gotten through the feeling of crisis, but the pandemic dragging on is exhausting and this is where relationships really matter.”
You can’t go all this time without fostering friendships and eventually return to the workplace feeling connected, says Nelson. Whether you plan on going back to the office or not, you need to have a plan for strengthening relationships.
“Put a Post-it Note near your desk and name a couple people that are important to you, either to build a relationship with or stay connected to,” says Nelson. “Then commit to building a bridge or maintaining a relationship.”
Find ways to connect
Schedule time to talk to the people on your list, or take advantage of opportunities that do arise during the day. If you’re already interacting with someone in some form, for example, look for ways to extend it, such as asking to stay on a call 10 minutes after you’ve finished discussing business. Invite a coworker to a virtual lunch, or start a virtual book or podcast club.
Or kick off meetings by asking a sharing question, such as “What are your weekend plans?” or “What have you discovered about yourself during the pandemic?” Learning more about your colleagues helps you find ways to connect later.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, admits Nelson, but that’s the case with doing anything new. “Set the expectation that it will feel awkward,” she says. “And that’s okay. It doesn’t not need to feel forced. We force ourselves to go to the gym or to go to bed because we know on the other end of it is something positive. This can be the same.”
Broaden your network
The upside to working virtually is that you can broaden your circle beyond what would naturally happen in an office on a daily basis. If you’ve always wanted to build a relationship with someone in another department, take advantage of the fact that everyone is working remotely to reach out and suggest a call or video meeting.
“Use the pandemic as an excuse,” says Nelson. “You can say, ‘I’m feeling a little isolated now and thought I’d set up a few calls to hear others’ experiences.’ Explain why you’re doing something different and model the behavior for others.”
Make it consistent and positive
To make it stick, it must become a habit, says Nelson. “You could meet the first Thursday of every month, for example,” she says. “What you put in place needs to be a routine so you can maximize your time interacting and minimize the time it takes for scheduling. You’re at higher odds of having something stick if it’s consistent and not a one-off time.”
Everyone is stressed and creating a positive emotion for others can help cement connections. “Your job description during a call or video conference is to leave that person feeling better about themselves and their work,” says Nelson. “That will make them want to interact with you some more. Consistency is important because it helps replace what’s missing from work, but the second most important factor is leaving the person feeling better for having spent time with you.”