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Work friends make life happier. Here’s how to make them when you’re remote

Having friends at work is a game changer, but it can be tricky to form connections when you’re not sharing the same physical space.

Work friends make life happier. Here’s how to make them when you’re remote
[Source illustration: Olga Kurbatova/iStock]
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Want to be happier at work? Your coworkers may hold the key. An ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development found that strong personal relationships are predictors of long-term happiness. Considering that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, having at least some friendships in the workplace can have positive benefits, says Jen Fisher, author of Work Better Together and chief well-being officer for Deloitte.

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“The nature of our work is more collaborative today than ever before,” she says. “Meaningful relationships at work can be a buffer during stressful situations. Downstream, they also impact the bottom line of an organization in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism, quality of work, and organization loyalty.”

Strong communities in the workplace can help address employee burnout, says Dr. Laura Gallaher, organizational psychologist and founder of the management consulting firm Gallaher Edge. “Having a sense of ‘we’re all in this together,’ can make even big mountains feel surmountable when employees feel fully supported by the team,” she says. “They’re far more likely to set bigger goals and take on bigger projects and be successful.”

Using Tech to Connect

In a pre-pandemic world, technology made tasks easier but was detrimental to relationship building, says Fisher. “Instead of picking up the phone and calling or walking down hall and having a face-to-face conversation, we turned to instant messaging or email,” she says. “It is definitely a way to get things done, but it removes humanity and connection from the process.”

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As we work remotely, however, technology is all we’ve got for creating connections. Instead of using it to replace relationships, it’s possible to leverage it to augment them.

“You must be intentional about when and how you use it,” says Fisher. “I recommend not combining work and human connection. Put time on the calendar specifically for non-work conversations. Or use another channel to communicate with one another, such as social media platforms.”

While some teams schedule virtual happy hours or hold time at the beginning or end of virtual meetings for casual conversation, Gallaher says it’s not the same.

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“Adding time onto meetings or scheduling a Zoom happy hour was fun at first but now it becomes one more thing on someone’s calendar,” she says. “Connection should be on the individual level. It sounds simple, but unscheduled five-minute calls can help. Bonds build up over time and consistency will have a compound effect.”

Instead of asking “how are you?” ask real questions, suggests Fisher. “People will answer ‘fine,’ and move on,” she says. “I like to ask how people are sleeping. I’m a big advocate for sleep. It gets some funny reactions and creates engaging conversation because it’s not a question people expect.”

And make sure the outreach is positive; if you’re always reaching out when something has gone wrong or there’s a problem, it can hinder friendship building, adds Gallaher. “Try to have way more positive than negative interactions,” she says. “Even if you do need help, present it in a positive way.”

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Build Trust

A critical element in building relationships virtually is trust. Fisher recommends being respectful when your coworkers are sharing parts of their lives. “Make sure you’re present and engaged,” says Fisher. “Eliminate distractions, especially when you’re one-on-one or in small group where it’s obvious when you’re distracted. Practicing active listening is a great way to be present.”

Leaders can set the tone for relationship building, adds Gallaher. “If managers tell their teams to form friendships but they’re not doing it themselves, employees are going to question it,” she says. “Managers need to model the behavior and make the invitation.”

Building relationships can increase trust within a team. “One way culture falls apart is when we have individual defensiveness coming up,” says Gallaher. “If we aren’t friends but we are coworkers and you show up late to a meeting, I might have a story in my head based on my insecurities, such as you don’t value my time. When there’s trust, we’re more likely to use a generosity hypothesis [and] get curious, not furious.”

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Set Boundaries

The biggest reason people hesitate making friends at work is because they’re afraid the relationship will cross boundaries, especially managers.

“Everybody has different boundaries around standard working hours,” says Fisher. “It helps to agree or let people know when you’re available. Set up boundaries as a team or individually. I like to work out from 9:30 a.m to 10:30 a.m., and I block out that time. Others respect it because I respect it.”

Managers and employees may also worry that building friendships won’t allow them to give negative feedback or hold someone accountable if they make a mistake, says Gallaher.

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“It’s useful to recognize that boundaries are very important and healthy in every relationship,” she says. “Whether it’s personal or professional doesn’t change that.”

One of the benefits of the pandemic is that most of us realized the importance of relationships. “We took them for granted,” says Fisher. “We’re ready to start building them again. The key is to do it with intention.”