A presentation has not gone how you wanted it to, and you feel like you’ve lost all perspective on the project. Finally, you leave the meeting and take a deep breath. Who do you turn to?
In years past, the answer might have been your work friend: the colleague you vent to about fast-approaching deadlines, the person who knows how hard you’ve been working toward that promotion, the one who can always sense exactly when you need a midday coffee run (and remembers you take a splash of oat milk with one Splenda). They’re the support you need at the place you spend, well, most of your life.
At least, they used to be. According to data from our 2022 Work Trend Index , work friendships for people across industries have taken a hit in the past two years. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in hybrid work environments and 56 percent of those who are entirely remote say they have fewer work friendships. That has only exacerbated a feeling of loneliness that was seeping into the workforce long before the pandemic—one that made employees feel more isolated and disconnected from their colleagues. And as we shift more fully into hybrid work, where colleagues collaborate from different places and at different times, it will be even more important to rebuild those connections.
“As human beings, we crave social connection,” says organizational psychologist Constance Noonan Hadley. That matters to a successful business. “If people are lonely, they’re not going to do their best work.”
She describes loneliness at work as the belief that “few people truly know me or would support me in my time of need.” Before 2020, it was on the rise, as meeting overload, pushes for efficiency, and the increasing fluidity and variability of team structures squeezed out time for real connection. In a research study Hadley conducted right before pandemic lockdowns swept the country, 76 percent of executives said they had difficulty making connections with their work teammates, while 58 percent said their social relationships at work were “superficial.”
“Friendships take effort,” says Microsoft researcher Nancy Baym, “and effort has been in high demand.” Amid the chaos of pandemic life, when people were focused on not getting sick, dealing with school closures, and navigating ever-changing COVID policies, nonessential relationships withered in the face of more pressing concerns.
That’s compounded in a virtual setting. “If you’re not bumping into each other in a place where you can hang out and chat, then you have to make time to have those conversations,” she says. As time spent in meetings ballooned , the push to make them more productive—streamlined agendas, a brisk pace, no distractions—hasn’t helped. Sure, the efficiency is appreciated, “but it means that the ‘Hey, how you doing? What did you do over the weekend?’ digressions that take you down fun alleyways are less likely to be happening.”
But research shows that making time for those connections is worth the effort. Loneliness can have serious consequences , from health problems like heart disease and dementia to poor job performance, including burnout and reduced productivity. On the flip side, social capital—the benefits that flow from strong relationships among employees—is crucial to an organization’s success. In data from the Work Trend Index , employees who had thriving relationships with their immediate team reported better wellbeing than those with poor relationships (76 percent versus 57 percent), along with higher productivity (50 percent versus 36 percent). “When people trust each other, they take risks together,” Baym says. “That can be very helpful with innovation and creativity.”
Friends can also help buffer the routine stress that comes with any job. If an employee has a particularly taxing client meeting, they’ll feel better if afterward they can blow off steam with a close co-worker. If they leave that meeting and don’t have anyone to talk to, the steam simply...stays inside them. That can breed resentment and other negative feelings about work. And in the Great Reshuffle, as people look to leave their jobs in search of greener pastures, strong connections among teammates can be a powerful tool for retention.
“When people trust each other, they take risks together. That's helpful with innovation and creativity.”
To foster and rebuild connections among your team, Hadley says leaders first need to do something that may seem anathema to an efficient business: slow down. “It doesn’t take that much to create connection,” she says. When it comes from a place of sincerity, even 10 minutes can make a big difference. She suggests making time in the calendar for get-to-know-you chats, where employees can take the conversation wherever it flows—as long as it’s not about work. That way, they can create personal connections that will be far more meaningful than talking about next week’s all-hands.
Sure, it might feel uncomfortable at first. But according to research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , people tend to overestimate how awkward even a 10-minute social interaction will be. Meanwhile, they tend to come away happier and with a deeper sense of connection.
Baym also suggests carving out time for in-person offsites whenever possible. Even if it’s just a few times a year, bringing people together—again, to talk about something other than work—will help forge bonds. That’s particularly important early on in an employee’s tenure, she says, when they have yet to create any connections with coworkers. In a hybrid work environment, an in-person boost will help lay the foundation for substantive work relationships.
Only have a minute in between endless meetings? The easiest thing to do, says Sarah Wright, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who studies loneliness at work, is to drop a colleague a personal note. Did they just get back from a trip to Miami? Send a Teams chat asking what they did to relax on the beach. Or shoot them a quick email: “I’m just checking in, wondering how everything’s going in your world. How are you?” The key, she says, is to make sure it’s divorced from a request for work, so they know you’re asking because you genuinely care—not because you need them to review Thursday’s briefing doc.
Keep in mind, however, that not everyone wants friends at work. Like a company’s insistence that the people it pays for services rendered are “family,” too much emphasis on employees becoming friends can feel overbearing to those who simply want to focus on the job at hand. Research suggests that this is particularly relevant for Black and African American people, who are more likely to deal with cultural barriers, microaggressions, and other unique stressors at work. It’s important to strike a balance between not forcing connections and making space for them to happen naturally. “Friendship is the end of a spectrum that has a lot of other points in between, like being kind to one another and supporting each other when you’re having a hard day,” Baym says. Those smaller actions are important building blocks for positive culture.
Even if your employees aren’t rocking twin BFF necklaces, there are a lot of serious, important reasons why leaders should increase the strength of workplace relationships. “But at the end of the day,” Hadley says, “it just makes work more fun.” And that’s the kind of workplace where most people will stay for a long time.