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Why you need a virtual work spouse now more than ever

Research shows how much work best friendships matter—and you don’t have to be in the same building to get the benefit.

Why you need a virtual work spouse now more than ever
[Photo: Thomas Lefebvre/Unsplash]
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Mere months ago, you might have thought it was weird—and maybe even a little tragic—that one of my closest personal and professional allies is someone I have met in person just once, through work. And that meeting was during the Bush presidency.

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But now that so many of us are working remotely, and virtual connections are the widely adopted substitute for face-to-face interactions, I would argue that my own long-distance work friendship is merely an idea ahead of its time.

Gallup research repeatedly demonstrates the powerful impact of having a best friend at work: According to its data, people who say they have one are happier, healthier, and seven times as likely to be engaged with their jobs. A work spouse, as they’re cheekily known, is the one person in whom you trust and confide above all others on professional matters. They’re your happy hour buddy (even if the drinks are on Zoom), but also the first person you contact when you get the news of a promotion, or when your meeting presentation goes south.

My own work wife lives in Chicago, and I live in Los Angeles. That one time we met in person was about 15 years ago, at a New York conference organized by the media company where we both then worked near the beginning of our respective careers. That was the only occasion we’ve been in the same room, but that hardly matters. 

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Over the years, we flowed through other media jobs, sometimes overlapping as freelancers, sometimes lobbing opportunities to the other to join us where we’d made new inroads as writers covering the niche world of meetings and events, and the not-so-niche worlds of entertainment and lifestyle.

All the while we made various evolving technologies into our digital water cooler—AIM, iMessage, Facebook Messenger—long before such virtual connections were a requirement for daily life in a pandemic. 

We built not only camaraderie, but also substantial trust and an infinite shorthand of in-jokes that come from sharing the same virtual bunker in an insular and idiosyncratic industry, sharing intimate knowledge of our field’s nuanced cast of characters and its eye-roll-triggering indignities.

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Over the years, we’ve not bonded just over work: We each got married, had children, bought homes, experienced health scares, and shared all of these personal events with each other in intricate detail, almost exclusively online, and in a dialect we invented. I often approach major decisions — not just professional but personal, too — only after soliciting her guidance. 

Yes, I do have a lawfully wedded spouse in my own home. I also feel quite privileged to have more close friendships than I can count on two hands, plus parents and a big sister from whom I regularly seek advice and guidance. So why do I need a virtual work spouse across the country?

Because our relationship fills a unique and necessary—certainly a quality-of-life-boosting—slot. Consider that having a best friend at work tends to make people happier than if they earned $100,000 more, according to data cited in The Atlantic.

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Only that best friend at work knows the boss’s personality quirks; knows what a colleague really means no matter how it came off in the meeting; knows how that new benign-sounding policy really affects your day-to-day. 

But it’s the bigger picture over the trajectory of a career, too. Only that person working right alongside you in the business knows what next steps can really look like; knows the contacts who can help you get there; and can offer guidance from a truly insider perspective. 

Fortunately, there’s absolutely no requirement that you share the same office: You can get the benefit of a work best friend without even working at the same company—let alone in the same city. 

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My connection to my work wife has almost always been virtual, but the friendship we’ve built is real. So I’m going to recommend you evaluate your virtual relationships and think about settling down. 

Did you have a close work friend with whom you lost touch when you all went remote? Take steps to build back that friendship virtually, and fortify it for the future. The approach will look different for everyone. For you and your work spouse, it might mean scheduling a regular weekly (or even daily) virtual lunch break, or Zoom happy hours.

My work wife and I both despise the phone, and would rather connect digitally. Most typically we message during the work day, but our communication certainly carries over after hours when there’s breaking news (geopolitics, celebrity, or work related) — and that’s when we move to a text thread.

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Never got close with anyone in the office? Now’s the time to start building a friendship via remote connections. Find the Facebook or other social media groups in your professional niche and start engaging. See whose ideas you vibe with, and whose career seems to be on a similar track. From there, start testing the viability of your new friendship by sending out digital breadcrumbs. Was your candor met with palpable relief? Was your openness to share met eagerly with the same? If so, keep at it and see where that relationship takes you.

This is how we did it all those years ago: sharing ever more personal details as we were each getting serious with our now-husbands. Neither my work wife nor I remember the specific moment we figured out we were kindred spirits (I just asked her over Facebook Messenger) but we just clicked—and off we went.

Yes, having a virtual work best friend is handy emotional support in a pandemic. But it’s also a powerful means of authentic, enduring connection in a work world that is increasingly freelance, remote, and altogether reinvented. 

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And, in my experience, it makes all the difference.