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22% of people don’t have any friends at work. Here’s how to change that

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are simple ways to foster workplace connections.

22% of people don’t have any friends at work. Here’s how to change that
[Photo: RgStudio/Getty Images]

The pandemic has left a wide path of destruction in its wake. And one of the sadder things it has done is made us lonelier and less connected, especially in the workplace, according to a new report.

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In “The Connection Crisis: Why Community Matters in the New World of Work,” BetterUp Labs, the scientific research team of virtual-coaching platform BetterUp, found that while most of us would like to have more work friends, more than 6 in 10 people don’t socialize with coworkers outside of work and 43% don’t feel a sense of connection to coworkers; 22% said they don’t even have one friend at work. More than half of respondents said they would trade some of their compensation for stronger ties with colleagues.

Workplace loneliness was an issue even before the pandemic, and social distancing and remote work have just exacerbated the problem, says friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time. And the more we get used to that feeling, the less we even realize it’s an issue, she adds. “A lot of us are getting less interaction, and we’re telling ourselves that we’re okay with that,” she says.

Today, the reality is different. The natural interactions that happened in an office full of people, such as spontaneous conversations and sharing meals, are less common. But workplace relationships play an important part in our lives, says Carole Robin, coauthor of Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues. (Robin and coauthor David Bradford taught the well-known Interpersonal Dynamics class—often called “Touchy Feely”—at Stanford Business School.)

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Fortunately, there are some effective ways to foster more connection in the workplace. Here’s how:

Prioritize connection over convenience

Organizations are often laser-focused on efficiency and productivity. When employers shifted to remote work, employees often doubled down on their desk time, working more hours. And while it may be more convenient to work from home, remote employees may find that the convenience comes at the cost of connection, says Nelson. So, employees and employers need to be more intentional about creating opportunities for employees to form bonds, even if that means sacrificing productivity from time to time.

Create space for the personal

Employees who don’t feel connected may be more reluctant to reach out via email or other communication platforms, the BetterUp Labs report found. Nearly 70% said they think carefully about the frequency of their communications so they don’t “bother” others. That hesitancy can impede the communication necessary to get things done. Finding time for employees to connect and discuss personal details like hobbies, family, or weekend plans fosters better connection. The report also found that this is an area where organizational intervention may be important, as one in three respondents said they were unsure how to find people for friendly relationship-building in the workplace today.

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“Those things are not frivolous,” says Erin Eatough, occupational health psychologist with BetterUp Labs. Such opportunities, “actually matter for building connections with people,” she says. “And then that trickles out to how teams perform, how committed people are, [and] their intentions to stay.”

Find ways to elicit positive emotions

In addition to finding opportunities for people to connect on a personal level, fostering positive emotions is also helpful, Nelson says. It may be easy to roll your eyes at ice-breaker or team-building exercises, especially with remote teams, but participating in good faith can help you learn more about your coworkers and the common interests you might have. Leaders have an opportunity to designate time during meetings for people to share something about themselves, ranging from what they did over the weekend to something they’re proud of that happened during the past week.

“We just need people showing up with hope, with expectation, with a willingness to participate. We have very few moments that are meaningful together anymore,” says Nelson. Deciding that you don’t like the scavenger hunt or other game but that you’re still going to participate can lead to opportunities for making new work friends.

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Another way to create positive experiences that can help bonds form is to find opportunities to work on something together, Robin says. Whether it’s a project, a team book club, or a group volunteering project, those opportunities to connect and collaborate on can lead to some of the spontaneous moments that can be integral to forming workplace friendships.

Normalize appropriate vulnerability

An important part of connecting is vulnerability, Nelson says. People have to feel comfortable opening up to each other. Leaders can encourage sharing and connection by offering details about themselves, even if it makes them feel vulnerable. As Fast Company has reported before, “[V]ulnerability is sharing relevant concerns, uncertainties, or requests for assistance, which insecure leaders are often reluctant to do.”

She adds that it’s also important to start early. During the onboarding process, help connect new hires with other employees. Connecting them with a mentor or someone who can at least show them the ropes can lay the groundwork for more workplace friendships, she says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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