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The rise of remote work — though accelerated due to unforeseen circumstances in the spring of 2020 — was inevitable. In the 21st century, the growing ubiquity of high-speed internet coupled with technology that enables near-seamless communication has allowed work to transition from office spaces to the confines of our own homes. And though telecommuting has shown to offer myriad benefits to companies and workers alike (not to mention that it effectively saved the world as we know it from a full economic collapse following the COVID-19 pandemic), make no mistake: Fostering a healthy and thriving remote work environment is a challenge that requires an intentional and proactive strategy.
Though apps like Monday, Slack, and Zoom have taken it upon themselves to create virtual spaces that facilitate task management and communication, they’re all focused on productivity — understandably the main concern of company managers across the world. Once the means of work have been resolved, however, we’re left to tackle the more abstract, often confounding, aspects of what makes a workplace not just tolerable, but enjoyable and fulfilling.
For people who had grown accustomed to the ebb and flow of a shared office space, a sudden switch to working from home can feel isolating. It’s only natural that office friendships are as old as office spaces themselves; if you bring a group of people with similar interests and backgrounds together, at least some will be bound to establish human connections. In an interview for The Atlantic, Annie McKee, author of How to be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship, explains that these relationships “emerge from the nexus of convenience and necessity — convenient because of the low-effort opportunities to socialize, necessary because of our basic human need to connect.”
So what happens when you eliminate the possibility of communal coffee breaks, hallway run-ins, and after-hours cocktails from a work experience? When everyone is interacting mostly with avatars, establishing meaningful friendships can become tricky. Since the software we interact through is framed as a means of productivity, using it for matters unrelated to work can feel inappropriate, especially because we can’t know if the person on the other side of the text conversation is busy and would rather not be interrupted.
Tyler, an ad executive who began working remotely after he relocated from Manhattan to upstate New York in 2018, recalls feeling surprised by the initial difficulty to bond with new coworkers once his interactions were fully digital. “After years in the city, I craved the space and tranquility of the countryside, so I jumped at the opportunity to go full-remote,” he said. Socializing had always come naturally to him, and though his previously established friendships remained strong, as time passed, Tyler began sensing a lack of connection to the newer hires on his team. “I tend to be very focused on work during meetings, and I realized my personality wasn’t exactly shining through in those situations,” he said. “Creating good ads is as much about personal creativity as it is about being in sync with your team, so I began to make a conscious effort to establish friendships with new coworkers, asking them questions about their lives and offering more insight into my own.”
Tyler isn’t wrong in his idea that work flows better when coworkers are friends -- or at least on friendly terms. Research points to the fact that when employees have friends at work, they are more productive, engaged, and generally happier with their jobs. However, the same study also found that the benefits to workplace friendships are “somewhat muted by the personal resources they deplete,” which is to say that, as with all human relationships, the effort of maintaining a workplace friendship requires emotional labor that can become cumbersome.
Still, managers should try to set the stage for friendly interactions between their telecommuting employees, encouraging the occasional non work-related conversation before or after meetings, organizing video lunches and coffee breaks with small, rotating teams, or offering to pay for digital courses and workshops for employees.
For Alma, an animation designer who relocated from San Francisco to her native Los Angeles to spend time with family during the pandemic, an online course on the science of happiness was an opportunity to get to know a co-worker from a different department of the company she works at. “Back in April, management emailed everyone a list of online courses we could sign up for, paid by the company,” she said. “A woman from accounting and I were the only ones to sign up for the happiness workshop, and we actually ended up bonding a lot through the assignments.” Though the pair had worked at the same office space for nearly 3 years, it wasn’t until this prompt that they discovered their common interests.
As the widespread transition to remote work moves forward, we’ll begin to encounter numerous ways to make the best of it. Perhaps in the same way that remote work, when done right, can promote a better sense of work-life balance, it can help establish healthy boundaries within friendships between co-workers. In the previously mentioned article for The Atlantic, writer Nicole Mo concludes that “the rise of remote work may just mean that work friendships no longer play an oversize presence in our social and professional life — and that they become more like regular, “real,” friendships.” As remote work experts and enthusiasts, we have to agree.