7 ways to make human connections when your work is virtual
work friends, So many of our friendships are built on proximity. We become friends with the people we see all the time – our next-door neighbor, the college classmate who sat next to us in the lecture hall, or the colleague who shared our cubicle wall.
But what do you do when you can’t rely on shared physical spaces to build friendships with colleagues? Should you just hyperfocus on your career and write off work friendships as another COVID casualty?
Definitely not. Because it turns out that connecting with other people at work is not only good for your mental health, it’s good for your job performance.
work friends, Why work friends matter?
Even the introverts among us have a need for some type of human connection at work. Long-standing research has shown that 72 percent of people who report having a “work bestie” are satisfied with their jobs, compared to 54 percent of those who don’t have a best friend at work.
On the flip side, loneliness is associated with impaired performance, creativity and decision making. “Once you start getting into the cycles of loneliness, you’re in a different psychological state. Eventually, that breeds into more loneliness,” says Hakan Ozcelik of California State University in Sacramento. Ozcelik and his research partner, Dr. Sigal Barsade of UPenn, published a study in which they found that workplace loneliness resulted in lonely employees becoming less approachable and less committed to their organizations.
Companies across the United States are delaying their back-to-the-office dates. And a recent McKinsey report says that 20-25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week without a loss of productivity.
For many of us, remote work is here to stay. Learning how to make friends in a remote work environment is a good skill to learn.
7 strategies for making work friends in a hybrid/remote environment
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge that making new friends as an adult can feel awkward sometimes. Here are some ways that individuals and supervisors can help nurture potential friendships during work.
work friends: 1. Ask someone for a lunch or coffee date
Not having an in-person office environment doesn’t mean you can’t still have a lunch date or coffee chat to catch up or get to know someone better. Meet-and-greet video calls are especially helpful if you’re new to a job or to a team.
If you’re a team lead, you can ease this process by randomly pairing up team members for 30-minute “coffee chats” once a month. Set the rule that people can talk about anything except work.
As Leadership Development and Culture Strategist Julie Barrios told Atlassian’s Claire Cook, “Companies are operating out of such urgency to get the job done that they’re not taking the time to encourage employees to develop strategic awareness of each other. If you make the business decision to take the time to get to know each other, it creates a less lonely culture because people feel supported and interdependent.”
2. Lean into the icebreakers
We all love to poke fun at icebreaker activities, but they’re still around for a reason.
Dee Ann Pizzica, engineering manager at Atlassian customer BRD has worked mostly remotely since 2009. She always starts her weekly staff meetings with a different icebreaker question.
“After doing this with the same team for a year, people still really like it,” says Pizzica. “Everyone pays attention, and even questions that seem like they might be boring – Are you a morning or a night person? – end up creating conversations that are funny or insightful and teach you something about your colleagues.”
Plus, icebreaker questions give you something to talk about later in follow-up chats. “I found out three of my colleagues have traveled to Scotland, so we all ended up sharing chat messages about places we’ve visited,” says Pizzica. “Or I’ve seen other colleagues get or ask for travel tips, and that’s fun.”
3. Follow up on chat
A chat messaging service is your go-to medium for remote work friendships “work friends”. Whether you’re sending a text message or voice message through a program like Voxer, it’s the remote equivalent of popping into someone’s office to tell them a quick story on your way to the bathroom.
A quick follow-up message is a perfect way to transition that random comment from a meeting into a long-term conversation (and maybe friendship).
Let’s say you heard a coworker Megan mention in the all-staff meeting that she was late because she was putting her kindergarten son on the school bus for the first time. After the meeting, send her a message telling her you know exactly how that feels – you just dropped your three-year-old off at her first day of daycare.
“Taking those few extra moments to talk to someone and ask a question or two about something they shared is an opportunity to get to know them better,” says Pizzica.
4. Be a joiner
If your organization has any clubs, groups, or committees, now’s the time to get involved.
Many companies have affiliate groups for people of color, women, or LGBTQ employees. They may have clubs for particular interests (like volunteering) or work-related committees that focus on specific projects or initiatives within the organization.
You may also want to consider starting your own group. Think there may be other folks in your organization looking for outdoor volunteer opportunities? Start a Slack channel and invite anyone who’s interested to join.
At Atlassian, we also encourage team members to create their own Learning Circles. These are groups of employees that gather monthly to discuss a work topic they’d like to better understand. They might read and analyze a book or article. Or one person might research and do a presentation.
Connecting with people in smaller groups can create more opportunities for one-on-one discussions.
5. Watch faces during video calls
Remember when you used to catch someone’s eye across the conference room table and realize you were both thinking the same thing about your boss’s lecture on appropriate office attire?
That’s hard to recreate in a video chat, but making those connections isn’t impossible. Set your view to gallery mode, and watch your fellow team members.
Notice that Shonda had a big smile on her face when someone mentioned the latest episode of “Only Murders in the Building”? Send her a quick message asking what she thought about the cliffhanger ending. Boom – connection made.
6. Pay attention to video backgrounds
Some offices may have rules about your background, but if yours allows for some personalization, consider that. Pizzica has had plenty of conversations with fellow team members that started because of something she or they noticed about their background.
“Musicians ask about my ukulele, parents ask about the random children’s sculptures. I’ve gotten comments on the paintings on the wall,” says Pizzica. “I also notice things about others’ spaces. I wave to their kids or giggle about a cat walking across the screen.”
At Atlassian, some teams even have a virtual messy-desk faceoff in Slack every week. You can learn about someone by seeing what objects they have sitting in front of them all day.
7. Say ‘thank you’ and ‘good job’
In these remote work times, some of the more natural opportunities for praise – like head nodding in a meeting or a quick “nice work!” as you walk out the door – are missing. Everyone likes to be recognized for their hard work, so take a minute to send a text or an email letting someone know you noticed them.
At Atlassian, we encourage individuals to give team members kudos (thank you notes with small gifts) when they embody a specific trait from our company values. You may not have a budget for small gifts, and that’s okay. A simple thank-you message goes a long way.
Embracing the awkwardness reduces the awkwardness
If you still think all of this sounds super awkward, just remember this: the better you know someone, the easier it will be to fill those weird silences when there’s supposed to be three of you on a call, but only two of you show up on time.
“Spending time collaborating means chats and video calls and more opportunities to talk to people,” says Pizzica. “There’s going to be that inevitable time when you’re waiting for someone to join the call or a demo isn’t working, and you have a few extra minutes to ask what someone did over the weekend or how their kid’s birthday celebration went. Project work is probably the place where I’ve gotten to know people best.”
- Research shows that having a “work bestie” or “work friends” can increase your job satisfaction.
- Feeling isolated at work can actually have a negative impact on your job performance.
- Team leads can help nurture work friendships by creating opportunities for people to connect.
- Engaging in casual chit-chat in the minutes before or after a meeting can be enough to spark a connection that turns into a friendship.