With remote work no longer a nice-to-have but a requirement in the new normal, do people still believe in the necessity to make friends at work? To find out, we asked Ben Voyer, behavioural scientist and professor of entrepreneurship at ESCP Business School, and Christin Mey, certified business coach and research associate at ESCP, to tell us their thoughts on the matter.
Do we still need work friends? Just a few months ago, this question would have seemed absurd to most people. At that time, of course, we needed people at work we knew we could rely on and have a laugh with on a daily basis. Work friends were the salt to our daily lives. But since the health crisis has vastly democratised remote work, one can wonder if work friends are even still a thing. Indeed, in the post-pandemic era, nine out of ten organizations plan or are already combining remote and on-site working. In that context, recruits may have a harder time making friends at work. And people may also realise that they do not need to befriend colleagues as much, now that they get to hang out at home with family more often.
Does the rise of working from home (WFH) mean the end of the after-work hang out? Maybe not.
Work friends participate in our overall happiness…
“If the question comes down to ‘Do we still need work friends?’, my answer will be a resounding yes!”. Those are Christin Mey’s words when asked if our increasingly digitalised lives still require us to make friends at work. “Dr Brené Brown’s research leaves no doubt about that. She sums this up beautifully: ‘We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” Moreover, as having work friends is an essential part of our daily lives, it also has significant benefits when considering our general sense of wellness. No wonder why nearly half of Americans are eager to go back to the office at least a few days a week, specifically to see their work friends again.
“If the question comes down to ‘Do we still need work friends?’, my answer will be a resounding yes! As Dr Brené Brown summed it up: ‘we are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”Christin Mey
Working from home, at times, can be lonely: actually, loneliness is the biggest struggle people face when working from home, right next to having trouble with efficient collaboration and communication, and right above not being able to unplug. “Having work friends increases resilience by acting as a buffer against work stress. It also encourages cooperation and supportive behaviour between staff. But most importantly, it is an integral part of what makes work meaningful. All three (increased resiliency, cooperation, and perceived meaningfulness) have the power to profoundly impact both employee wellbeing and performance,” explains Christin Mey. Without those specific connections, what would work look like?? As the New York Times recently asked: “If you never met your coworkers in person, did you even work there?”
… and help companies be more proficient
Encouraging people to become more than mere coworkers can also benefit the companies hiring them. As Professor Ben Voyer tells us: “Work friendships are important for companies. Friends contribute to the creation of a cohesive workforce. They can help employees see a bigger purpose in their work than ticking boxes on the tasks assigned to them. Companies can experiment with a ‘buddy’ system to foster some work friendships. But like most friendships, they can only last if they are genuine and not enforced.” In short, work friends are a good thing, but if you feel you cannot stand Andy, your obnoxious colleague from Sales, there’s no need to force it.
“Friends contribute to the creation of a cohesive workforce. They can help employees see a bigger purpose in their work than ticking boxes on the tasks assigned to them. . . . But like most friendships, they can only last if they are genuine and not enforced.”Ben Voyer
Christin Mey also agrees, adding that work friends participate in creating safe environments that will generate beneficial synergies in the long run. “As a species, we have achieved marvellous things through collaboration. If we stop investing time in establishing and maintaining work relationships, we will ultimately lose out on exhilarated performance thanks to intact communication, finding synergies and most importantly: loyal employees that feel they belong.”
In that sense, companies should continue to invest in team building, and the physical workplace should not be relegated to something of the past just yet. Especially considering the fact that, according to recent studies, at least 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to social interaction outside the workplace. If people never even meet at work, chances are they will not hang out outside of it either.
“If we stop investing time in establishing and maintaining work relationships, we will ultimately lose out on exhilarated performance thanks to intact communication, finding synergies and most importantly: loyal employees that feel they belong.”Christin Mey
How does working from home affect us and our conception of work?
But going full-remote also affects the way we see our jobs and the tasks we are assigned, as well as our productivity.
“Working from home can turn the workforce into a task-focused workforce, moving it away from being a more mission-driven one. The key element that is missing in a remote-first work environment is chance encounters. Most modern workplaces are built to facilitate chance encounters and feature ample social places. Research suggests that places such as cafeterias or coffee machine spaces have an important function that helps foster a coping community in the workplace. These can be artificially reproduced but it is difficult to reach the same level of spontaneity. The rise of WFH can mean a more individualistic workforce,” says Ben Voyer.
“Research suggests that places such as cafeterias or coffee machine spaces have an important function that helps foster a coping community in the workplace. These can be artificially reproduced but it is difficult to reach the same level of spontaneity. The rise of WFH can mean a more individualistic workforce.”Ben Voyer
Talking about the coffee machine, we asked Christin Mey if there was any difference to be seen between our fellow introvert and extrovert colleagues. Aren’t introverts relieved, if not flourishing, that remote work is becoming more common? Things are not as simple as that. As Christin Mey points out: “Introverts might prefer to mull things over alone initially, whilst extroverts make sense of their world through expressing what they think; the latter being considerably harder to do when working in solitude. Generally speaking though, the world cannot be neatly categorised into introverted and extroverted people. A more helpful approach is to think of everyone as having introverted and extroverted traits. This means for all of us, to work productively, we need both: to interact with one another, to exchange and make sense of our ideas, AND to peacefully work away on our own at times.”
This means that in the future, brick and mortar offices, no offence to Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse ambitions, will certainly still be present, including work friendships that come with. A point of view shared by Ben Voyer, for multiple reasons: “It is way too early to tell and many headwinds are facing an all WFH world. Companies, especially those who have invested in flagship offices around the world, have a material and financial interest in keeping workers in the workplace. Cities also have a financial interest in retaining corporate landlords. In addition, every workplace has politics, and these are easier to navigate in an office space.”
At the end of the day, the brick and mortar office era is not finished yet. Face-to-face conversations and swift in-person communication still hold some precious benefits for employees as well as for their companies. Fingers crossed: the ritual coffee machine chit-chat may still have bright days ahead.