Those moments of giggling by the kettle, catching someone’s eye in a meeting, co-ordinating lunch breaks and offloading at the pub have gone. And without them, relationships with our colleagues have become purely professional.
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
“I think it helps us feel grounded and comfortable to know we have someone in our corner at work, which can sometimes (or often!) be a daunting environment that doesn’t always put our happiness first,” says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure: A Manifesto for Reconnecting in the Modern World.
“We are, after all, still human beings in the office and we crave things like support, comfort, camaraderie and even fun – all of which we’re more likely to get from a buddy than a boss.”
The moments that facilitate these friendships have been destroyed by the pandemic, though, as millions across the UK are still working from home. Many haven’t returned to the office since March, and industry experts have told HuffPost UK most companies aren’t planning to head back until spring.
It’s got us wondering, how can we maintain our work friendships – or even make new ones – while we continue to work remotely?
Don’t expect work relationships to be ‘normal’ – nothing else is
The first step is accepting your work friendships been tested this year. A feeling of distance or strain is almost inevitable, says Leaver, as our usual methods of communication have been disrupted.
“When the world was normal, anyone who worked in an office alongside colleagues communicated in a number of different ways: emails, Slack banter, boardroom meetings, brainstorms, kitchen sink gossip sessions,” she says.
“We had this mix of face-to-face and virtual communication, which meant we could get lovely eye contact and pheromones and even a surge of the bond-building hormone oxytocin from a casual handshake or high five.”
Taking away those physical interactions has been a shock to the system. We’ve had to adjust to being able to tell what our colleagues are feeling, needing and doing via video calls, instant messaging and email.
“It can be isolating and confusing for people who are used to a variety of communication modes to suddenly be limited to one,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what someone’s tone or mood is from a text or email, which will cause strain. Add to that the fact we’re all living through a global pandemic, enduring whatever anxiety and dread and sadness that may bring, and it’s no wonder some people are struggling.”
Take a break from work chat
Working remotely risks making all our interactions with colleagues transactional: managers email to request a task, team members reply when it’s completed.
To break the cycle, we need to create moments in the day where work chat is banned, says Lee Thawley, co-founder of workplace consultancy MuddyWellies. “It’s a chance to, catch up or get to know each other and take your minds away from the stresses of the day,” she tells HuffPost.
“Just chat about anything but work… family, home life, exercise, the latest Netflix programme, whatever it takes to get a feel for how they’re doing. It doesn’t always have to be a planned Zoom call, just pick up the phone.”
If after nine months you’re struggling to find common ground, Thawley recommends “levelling up” your team meetings with some silliness, to get conversations started. This may also help new employees who’ve joined during the pandemic, who won’t have established work friendships.
“Add a theme that everyone needs to take part in,” she explains. “For example, you could organise a meeting with a James Bond theme. Everyone comes with something James Bond themed – either a fact, dressed as a character from the films, or even with a vodka martini, shaken not stirred!”
Bringing a little lightness back into your work relationships could really help, agrees Leaver – but you have to put the effort in. “The kind of thing that happens effortlessly and incidentally when you share a work space – you may just have to conscientiously make happen now.”
Bookend the day with informality
Spontaneity is great, but if you find you get too wrapped up in the working day once it’s started, you could consider making time for personal interactions at the beginning or end of your day.
“Someone I know has an ‘hour of power’ with his team every morning where each person gets five minutes uninterrupted to talk about themselves, then a big old debrief with everyone before they get on with the day,” says Leaver.
“Another friend of mine uses the time she’d usually be commuting to do an informal chat session with her work favourites, which is a sacred chance to gossip, bitch, laugh, joke, bond – and set the tone for the day ahead.”
How often do we actually look at one another directly in the face IRL? Staring at your colleagues’ faces – or worse, staring at your own reflection – on video calls doesn’t necessarily make for the most relaxing or stimulating chat. Consider sharing an activity instead.
“Think creatively, you could organise a virtual activity such as a Pilates session to get away from your desk or dining room table,” says Thawley. “Organising an activity rather than just a team meeting will get the team having fun, rather than just sitting and talking about the day-to-day stuff.”
Don’t skip the Christmas party
Yes, we’ve all got Zoom fatigue, but marking the festive season with colleagues can be a morale boost, says Thawley. It doesn’t need to take up a whole evening.
“In the run up to Christmas, think about how you can make your favourite parts of your usual festive celebrations work from home,” she says. “A team secret Santa is always a winner, with each team member having a gift delivered to a colleague at home. Log onto a Zoom call for the big reveal, and guess who bought each person the gift, all enjoyed with a glass of fizz, obviously.”
Think about your colleagues as individuals
Sure, you all work for the same company, but it’s unlikely your colleagues all have the same interests. Registering that will boost the chances of friendship.
“Listen to your colleagues’ passions, find out about them and then demonstrate that you know them,” says Thawley.
This could be as simple as recommending a show or a book you think they’ll like, or sending them something in the post. “Think about little moments of magic you can create for the team,” he adds.
Encourage a policy of openness
A policy of openness, and even vulnerability, helps strengthen friendships though difficult periods, says Leaver. If you feel comfortable, you can lead by example on this for your digital workplace.
“Sometimes you have to make up for the physical distance between you by ramping up your honesty, transparency and willingness to listen. So if you’re struggling or worried or scared, if it’s appropriate, say so,” she says.
“Ask people how they actually are and make them feel like your little Slack chat window or Whatsapp thread is a safe space.”