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How to Make Friends Working From Home

Tips to connect with your colleagues and avoid isolation

spinner image a woman working from home talks to colleagues over a video call

Roughly a year ago, Jessica Howe changed jobs, moving from a role as a nurse manager, where she worked on premises at a hospital, to a corporate position where she worked completely from home. The new role gave her more flexibility, which is part of remote work’s appeal. But while she was able to save commuting time and travel more, there was one unexpected challenge: making work friends.

“I have experienced challenges meeting people and developing relationships,” Howe says. “Some of my strengths in interpersonal relations are networking, reading the other person, reading group dynamics and feelings, and ensuring everyone feels they have my attention and are heard. Unfortunately, these strengths don’t easily translate to remote work.”

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Experiences like Howe’s appear to be increasing among older workers. According to an AARP survey conducted in May, 36 percent of remote workers 50 and older said being isolated from coworkers is difficult. Among the respondents who switched jobs, 20 percent said they made the change because they missed interacting with people. Only 8 percent of job switchers said the same when a comparable survey was fielded in September.

Cynthia Kantor, chief client and growth officer at JLL Work Dynamics, which consults with companies on the future of work, says that workplace friendships are “crucial” and that the pandemic and resulting shift to remote and hybrid work has had a big impact on how people form those relationships and the learning that comes with them. “It doesn’t matter your level. It doesn’t matter the hierarchy. It is that simple sharing of experiences, sharing of knowledge that happens organically and through osmosis, when we interact with people in the workplace,” she says.

Connecting when not every worker is in the office can be a challenge. Here are some steps you can take to build workplace friendships and reap their considerable rewards.

Match your schedules

Kantor says she sees a trend among her hybrid workplace clients in which teams or even the entire workforce are in the office on the same days. Everyone may be in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or the marketing team may be in office from Monday through Wednesday and other teams may have their own in-office days. She advises that both employers and employees be “purposeful” about choosing their in-office days for productivity reasons, but also to reinforce workplace relationships.

“Plan ahead to make your in-office days coincide with when other people are there that you need to interact with or want to interact with,” she says. Make the most of that time while you have it. Coordinate times with your workplace colleagues to have some one-on-one or small group time if you can.

Open up in chats

Howe’s new role has her working with an entirely remote team, “meaning that we are all in the same boat,” she says. Her team is far-flung in almost every way: They come from different parts of the country, as well as different cultures and backgrounds. That adds a layer of complexity in forging friendships, she says.

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Her team maintains an open chat channel where they can ask questions, share and provide support. They share photos of pets, memories such as hikes or a child receiving an award, and “do-it-yourself” home projects. That allows the team to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Schedule time for fun

At the same time, it’s important to remember that everyone is dealing with these changes differently and some may have a hard time connecting virtually or using technology, says leadership coach and workplace expert Gena Cox, author of Leading Inclusion: Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel.

“Some people either do not believe or desire to build the same kind of emotional relationship through technology as they [would] face-to-face,” she says. That hesitancy can make workplace friendships harder to create, so it’s important to be more actively involved in cultivating relationships that may have happened more easily when everyone worked at the same place at the same time.

Howe’s team has found a way to make connection a little easier from afar. “We also keep a running weekly virtual fun meeting where we get on camera and spend time talking about anything other than work,” she says.

Be the early bird

Connection doesn’t just happen over coffee or lunch, Kantor says. Arrive at in-person meetings a few minutes early to chat or integrate icebreakers where people share their personal news at the beginning of team meetings.

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“You can find connection in those moments ahead of [a planned] collaboration and the moments on the other side of the collaboration,” she says. “That is why ‘in person’ will always be a faster way to forge a relationship than virtually, because that honesty happens when the meeting ends.”

Assume you're starting from scratch

Cox says finding and cultivating workplace friendships may require some trial, error and discovery when it comes to what works — and what doesn’t. “You can't just use the social cues that you have used just when you were working together full-time,” she says. “Even though this is someone who knows you, and that you know and may even have worked together with previously, all of that stuff has changed. You have to assume, in a way, you’re starting from scratch.” So communicate, plan and try not to take the changes personally, she says.

Howe says it’s important to be a little more mindful in communication, as corresponding via messaging platforms or email may not convey tone or intent. It’s not uncommon for jokes to fall flat or for brief correspondence to come across as abrupt or rude in written messages. She says she’ll sometimes get her spouse’s opinion at home before she hits “send” on a message or email.

As always, good old-fashioned methods of connecting are important, too, Howe adds. Acknowledge others’ work and life events — both positive ones and those that are a struggle. Offer to help when someone has questions. And be open-minded. These are many of the same tenets that are essential for in-person friendships, too.

“[Remote and hybrid friendships] will be different,” she says. “But personal connection is worth it. For me, it brings more value to my life and more joy to my work.”

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