At first Laura Thompson thought her discontent stemmed from moving miles away from family and friends to take a new job with a tech company in Calgary.
As the months passed, however, and her feelings of restlessness and loneliness persisted, the 27-year-old Queen’s University grad realized that she wasn’t just out of sorts from moving to a strange, new city. She was struggling because something was missing in her life – her professional life, in particular – and that was a best friend at work, someone she could confide in and turn to for support, bounce ideas off or do something as simple as go for a walk or grab a bite to eat at lunch with.
Thompson, like millions of others adjusting to hybrid/remote work, found herself alone at home from 9 to 5 each day except, of course, when she was on Zoom calls with colleagues. At first, the freedom and flexibility of remote work seemed ideal, but once the novelty wore off and she settled into a solitary routine, Thompson missed having a work bestie, not only for the emotional support but also because that person kept her more accountable, more motivated and even more productive.
“I took this job because the work, itself, seemed more interesting and I thought it would further my career,” says Thompson, who moved last February with the hope there would be an office to work out of a couple of days a week. That space has not materialized.
“We have a small team in Calgary and we do try to get together once every couple of months for a drink but it’s not the same as having close friends you see every day in the office,” she says. “Ironically, the most enjoyable job I’ve had was my least favourite in terms of the actual work. It was demanding, stressful and we worked long hours but I was really excited to go into the office every day because I became friends with these people. I had a support system. I felt like I got more out of work than just a job.”
Clearly, the pandemic has turned the traditional office work model on its head. And while legions of people love some of the conveniences of hybrid/remote work, others are now struggling to make meaningful connections in their professional life. They miss the camaraderie and bonds that form when people work together in person to overcome challenges and reach a common goal.
Melanie Carr, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, says work is one of those areas “where people actually do have strong connections with other people in a sustained way that can last the rest of their lives … and all that was put on hold during COVID.
“Social interaction with colleagues brings a richness to work that keeps it from being strictly transactional,” Carr says. “It helps to create a sense of community that gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. Part of the concern with remote/hybrid work is that it is potentially taking some of that richness away.”
A Gallup poll in March seems to back that up. It found that having a best friend at work has become more important since the start of the pandemic, even considering the dramatic increase in remote and hybrid work. Employees surveyed said a work bestie is important to their mental well-being for many reasons, including offering judgement-free encouragement during tough times, and helping keep them in-the-know and feeling more “part of” a team.
Interestingly, a work best friend can help boost a company’s bottom line. The Gallup survey found employees with best friends are significantly more likely to engage customers and internal partners, get more done in less time, innovate and share ideas, and perhaps most important, have fun while at work.
Jillian Gooding, a 26-year-old team leader with Amazon in Toronto, says her company has made it a priority, since employees started returning to the office last April, to promote office friendships. Her team, for example, has a culture committee that’s basically in charge of organizing extracurricular fun. They have gone bowling, attended Toronto FC and Raptors games, as well as leadership dinners where they talk shop but also catch up on what’s going on in each other’s lives.
“The company is trying to build a cohesive culture from within,” says Gooding, who adds she has become close with one woman in particular whom she regularly sees outside of the office. “I’m a social person – and I realized after months of working alone at a desk in my bedroom – that I needed meaningful relationships at work. Friends make my job a value-added part of my life. It would be a little bit lonely, I think, not to have those connections.”
Former Olympian Elizabeth Manley, who is now a life coach based in Ottawa, says her client roster is increasingly filled with people who feel untethered in the remote/hybrid work world. Manley believes a work bestie can go a long way to bridge that disconnect.
“I am the poster child for how a colleague’s supportive words can change your life,” says the 1988 silver-winning figure-skating Olympic medalist. “I was about 10 minutes away from not competing in the long program in Calgary and one of my teammates went by and called me a champion.” Manley, who was suffering from depression and burn out, decided right then and there that she wasn’t going to pull out of the competition. “That person pulled me up.”
Work pals do that, says Manley, who has a few suggestions for how make friendships in the office. First, don’t wait for others to come knocking on your door. If you’re 100-per-cent remote, Manley recommends setting up a video chat to say hello and spark a conversation. For hybrid workers, make a point of going into the office a couple of days a week. Invite someone to join you in the cafeteria or sit in the park at lunch. “Don’t sit in your cubicle and isolate,” she says, adding “we’ve all done enough of that at home the last couple of years.”
Make a point of asking colleagues for feedback and creative support. “Once you’ve established a rapport, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable,” Manley says. “It’s a sign to others that you trust them, which is the building block of any good friendship.”
Remember to carve out time in the day for non-work catchups. In other words, Manley says, be deliberate about booking time with people that isn’t focused on achieving anything in particular. “It sends the message that you just enjoy spending time with them.” Try to be positive. “No one wants to befriend someone who is complaining all the time.” And don’t shy away from challenging, collaborative projects. “Tough, shared experiences are a great bonding agent,” adds Manley.
In Calgary, Thompson took the initiative last week and signed up with WeWork so she could get out of her apartment and back into a more structured work routine. “All of my friends and I say the number one criteria for our next job is some kind of office space. Everyone wants a hybrid model of three or four days a week because we are all missing the friend piece at work.”