Do you have a best friend at work? Not just a work friend, or a coworker you don’t mind chatting with, but a friend who you consider your dedicated person in the office. This is someone who makes you laugh, and someone you don’t hesitate to talk to about anything with, work-related or not. If you do, studies show that a friend can make you a better collaborator, a more creative and productive worker, and generally happier with your job.
As the CEO of a growing company, I’ve seen firsthand how beneficial office friendships can be. And with the majority of Americans still working from home, the truth is that making friends at work is a lot harder than it used to be. Office socialization is something we took for granted pre-pandemic and the most successful companies understand that fostering office friendships leads directly to more successful collaboration. You can no longer talk about your weekend over coffee in the office kitchen. You can’t chat with someone as you walk back to your desk, or slide your chair over to show them a funny tweet.
Building lasting relationships with coworkers in a virtual setting requires continuous, conscious effort. But with a little elbow grease, building close friendships is a great way to maintain positivity and productivity at work.
Whether you plan on going back to the office or not, you need to have a plan in place for creating and strengthening work friendships. Here are some strategies to get the ball rolling.
Plan it out
Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time, breaks down close friendships into three tenets: positivity, consistency, and vulnerability.
First, think about whether a potential friend has a positive attitude—so does this person make you feel more positive when you interact with them? Make a list of five coworkers who make you feel generally positive. Don’t overthink it; they can be five people you’d simply like to get to know better.
Next up is the factor of consistency. Ask yourself, do you regularly spend time with a person? This part used to come easy when we shared the same space in an office. Now, it’s on you to facilitate spending time with your coworkers.
Vulnerability comes last, and is often the most misconstrued. It doesn’t mean taking some huge risk and bearing your soul. Vulnerability is about feeling seen for who you are. Do you feel recognized when you do good work? Do you feel like you can be yourself around a person?
Reaching the vulnerability point is hard even with close friends, let alone coworkers. But doing so will vastly improve both your work itself and the way you work with others.
This is the tricky part. During the pandemic, we were no longer able to fall back on the luxury of in-office, organic conversations. Instead, we need to find new ways to make them happen. Little initiatives like team lunches, coffee meetings with employees from other departments, or even a weekly show-and-tell session can help develop these authentic moments.
One team at my company blocks off one hour each Thursday to allow each member to share something. It can be work-related, personal, or a mix of both. This works because it’s low pressure, includes structure, and makes everyone participate, managers included.
Another similar idea I’ve heard of, used at a San Francisco firm, are blind coffee meetings between random employees. The Friday meetings are optional, but if both members accept and go, they’re rewarded with a $5.00 Starbucks gift card.
This is great because it facilitates connection between coworkers who wouldn’t usually interact. And the small reward is a great addition since it takes both members’ attentiveness to receive.
Embrace the awkward
The number one fear I hear about taking action to socialize is “it’s too awkward.” And I agree 100%. Meeting someone new, or even putting in effort to try to connect with someone you do know, can be extremely awkward. However, lean into the awkwardness.
A lot of us believe close friendship is a magical occurrence. One day you’re strangers, the next, something clicks and you’re suddenly best friends. The truth is friendships almost always happen extremely gradually as a result of shared time and continued effort.
Further, it’s okay for things to be a bit uncomfortable at first, especially when everyone is not familiar with one another. The important part is you both go in acknowledging the first few hangouts will be awkward. This will relieve the pressure to hit it off instantly and encourage people to open up more.
Do it yourself
You don’t need company support to make close friends at work. But taking that first step can feel like the hardest part.
If your company isn’t interested in facilitating office friendships, the effort can start with you. Massive Zoom calls can be overwhelming and make it easy to lose focus. Send a Slack to someone you haven’t spoken with before. Ask someone on a different team their go-to lunch delivery spot. Reach out to a new hire and ask them how they’re doing.
Creating close bonds with coworkers can be awkward, uncomfortable, and can take months. However, people crave close relationships, in and outside of work. They are crucial to our productivity and our mental well-being. And the amazing part is, if you put in the effort, you will be more consistently productive, creative, collaborative, and happy with your work.
Corey Weiner is CEO of Jun Group, a New-York-based company delivering full screen video, display, and rich media campaigns for Fortune 500 advertisers and drives millions of opt-in page views for leading publishers.