Culture   //   November 10, 2022  ■  5 min read

People are struggling to make new pals at work

Greek philosopher Aristotle, who died in 322 BC, considered “friendliness” one of his 12 virtues. Over two millennia later, Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president throughout World War I, said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” However, almost a century after his death, the business world is crumbling — because having a best mate at work is increasingly ancient history.

New data from audio-only social media platform Clubhouse, based on a sample size of 1,000 U.S. workers, suggested 74% of people lost touch with a work friend during the coronavirus crisis. The combination of the Great Resignation, enforced hybrid working policies, and organizations chopping and changing staff — in addition to any health complications suffered — means that fewer people now have besties at work.

According to the research, the main reasons people have lost touch with work friends are due to changes in working patterns (32%), being furloughed or made redundant (30%), and being unable to participate in workplace social activities (28%). 

Meanwhile, playing “you’re-on-mute” tennis on videoconferencing is not conducive to achieving game, set, match for a smashing new work friendship. The report reveals a worrying statistic: 61% of respondents said work friends are more critical post-pandemic. 

Kim-adele Randall, CEO of the U.K. business transformation consultancy Authentic Achievements, said: “We all feel more isolated and lonely than ever. Our work friends are essential to our social support system. They can provide valuable advice, help us navigate challenging situations, and be a shoulder to cry on when we need it.”

Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of the advisory practice HSM, made this point in a recent article for MIT Sloan Management Review, which argued work friendships are crucial for our resilience. Gratton extolled the virtues of having a “trusted confidant” at work — a colleague who makes another feel worthwhile and with whom they can each celebrate and commiserate.

Shared experiences

It’s mutually beneficial to have a best friend at work to help navigate — and perhaps influence — office politics and gain guidance, validation, and respect. “When so many hours are spent working, having someone who understands our situation — the players involved, the office dynamics, and the general organizational culture — can help buffer routine stress,” added Gratton. “When we share our experiences, it often reminds us that others have gone through similar ones.”

Almost two-thirds (59%) of people in hybrid-working settings and 56% of those who were fully remote in the pandemic period had fewer work friendships than in early 2019, according to the Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index, which surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries.

Meanwhile, for frontline workers who did not work remotely, such as healthcare professionals and educators, the coronavirus crisis was incredibly stressful, if not traumatic. Work friends were paramount while chaos reigned.

Moreover, Gallup research, published in August, found that having best friends at work, who provide essential social and emotional support, now ties more strongly to key business outcomes. 

The report showed that those with a best friend are “significantly more likely to” engage customers and internal partners, be more productive, care about a safe workplace, strengthen company culture, and drive innovation.

Authentic Achievements CEO Randall underlined this point, citing a 2017 study by the University of Waterloo, Canada, that discovered that employees with strong friendships at work were more likely to receive promotions and raises than those who didn’t. She added: “The study also found that employees who had friends at work were more likely to stay with their company for longer.”

Yearning for work friendships

Notably, more recent Microsoft Work Trend Index data found a yearning for office-based friendships among hybrid workers. Indeed, when it comes to returning to the workplace, nearly three-quarters (73%) said they require a better reason than simply matching employer expectations, yet 84% of employees would be motivated by the promise of socializing with coworkers. Further, 85% would be enticed by the opportunity to rebuild team bonds.

Robert Ordever, European managing director of workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner, said: “Our research suggests the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness among U.K. workers, with 44% admitting to often feeling lonely and almost a third (30%) confess that they feel like an outsider.”

Workers are finding it more challenging to create and maintain connections, and remote working has worsened matters, intensifying feelings of isolation, stated Ordever. “Facilitating networking and social interactions must become a priority, with leaders building closer relationships with their employees,” he added.

Whether working digitally or in person, generating meaningful connections and, over time, friendships at work is vital for employee morale and office culture. This area is something into which Angela McKenna, evp, head of employee success EMEA Salesforce, has put a lot of thought into. “We need to rethink how we experience our teams,” she said. “That is why we ask every employee to find their teams within at least three professional communities.”

As such, Salesforce encourages its employees to find three types of cohorts within the organization: their immediate work team, a community of colleagues that live in the same geographical area, and an “affinity group” of people that share interests. “By developing communities that span work, physical location, and identity, we can help employees foster more meaningful connections to each other, to the culture, and to the company,” added McKenna.

Eating culture for breakfast (or lunch)

Unsurprisingly, Paul Davison, CEO of Clubhouse, firmly believes “remote work is the future.” According to his company’s data, people miss their eating buddies the most. “We consistently see a jump in app usage [on Clubhouse] around lunchtime and have seen many thousands of lunch-themed rooms since the pandemic started,” he said, pointing out that 61% of respondents no longer have lunch friends. “People like being among friends at lunch instead of doom-scrolling alone.”

Another less appetizing statistic thrown up by the Clubhouse research was that 89% of men surveyed said work friends were vital to their mental health. London-based Sarah Coghlan, global director of health campaigns and policy at The Movember Foundation — the organization behind the annual mustache-growing campaign to raise awareness of men’s health issues — is very concerned. “Your work friends are important, and spending time with them is good for you,” she said. “We would encourage men to think about how to reconnect with work friends if that relationship has drifted.”

Coghlan added that promoting cross-functional teamwork, recognition training, organizing regular social events, or rallying a work team to participate in charity fundraising events—such as Movember—will help establish a suitable environment for employees to develop meaningful friendships.

“Feeling connected and valued by other people is a fundamental human need,” she concluded. “Having strong friendships both in and outside the workplace has a major influence on our long-term health, well-being, and happiness levels.”