“I wonder if the office friendship is actually somewhat doomed,” writer Katherine Goldstein told me during a recent conversation about maintaining close friendships at work. Goldstein, who said her officemates played an important role in shaping her post-collegiate identity, predicted that hybrid work will forever change the social dynamic for young workers today.
She’s far from the only one who’s bearish on the future of workplace friendships, especially for younger workers. Fortune declared, “One of the secrets to happiness at work is slowly disappearing,” citing Gallup data showing a decline in the share of people who claimed a best friend at work. Emma Goldberg wrote for The New York Times that with more hybrid and remote work, “early-career friendships have become something of an endangered species.”
Before this starts to sound like Bowling Alone, but for business, let me say: This isn’t all bad. In fact, hybrid and remote work are having a critical hand in right-sizing the role friendship plays in our working lives.
Right-sizing means finding meaningful connections at work without expecting paid labor to be our primary source of community. Amid what the surgeon general has termed a national loneliness and isolation epidemic, it’s understandably convenient (and fun!) to seek out connection at work. But it’s smart to maintain a healthy outlook about what work should realistically provide socially. The effect could be a more distributed, less localized set of social interactions—and much-needed boundaries related to work. And younger workers with different expectations than their predecessors, and a different experience of the workplace, may be the best people to demonstrate what a reset can look like.
To be sure, some of my most enduring friendships have come from past jobs—but not from time spent in an office. When I worked at Mozilla Foundation, which has staffed a hybrid workforce since its inception in the early 2000s, my closest relationships were forged not during sporadic visits to Mozilla’s San Francisco and Mountain View offices, but at offsites and conferences. Most of these colleagues lived more than six hours—and sometimes a continent—away from me.
Time with my Mozilla colleagues-turned-friends convinced me that coming together for focused days IRL, without expecting that arrangement full-time, is the best way to foster lasting social ties. Limited, focused in-person time makes it possible for people to balance and maintain their personal commitments in the places where they live. It creates the conditions for colleagues to make the most of highly valuable in-person days and be more intentional with their time, both personally and professionally. It can also be the healthiest, as anyone who has worked in a culture of employer-enabled alcohol abuse or one tolerant of juvenile behavior can attest.
By contrast, generic “in-office” time can have no intention beyond that. It allows unintended effects to fill the void left by lack of intention: “work spouses” and informal “popular kid clubs” that crowd out more balanced life outside of work. And there’s a shadow side to spending so much time with the same colleagues:
- We may expect more emotional support from our workplace relationships than is healthy or appropriate. (Camaraderie and friendliness with colleagues can be therapeutic but aren’t a replacement for therapy. As a buzzy Bustle article recently noted, this is never more true than in direct manager interactions.)
- Commute time can keep us from contributing meaningful time and energy in our local neighborhoods, nourishing existing relationships that can fulfill us socially.
- Familiar habits like weekly happy hours can be difficult to break. While easy to plan–hence their frequency–happy hours aren’t always inclusive and can unduly pressure or ostracize people who are sober or trying to drink less. Less alcohol use is another area where Gen Z behaviors seem to be a harbinger for others’ rethinking of their own consumption.
- We may not expose ourselves to unknown people and ideas as much as we could.
For younger workers who are learning on the job, literally, how the workplace fits into their social selves, here are tactics and principles to help make that relationship a healthy one.
Repurpose your networking skills.
As Mita Mallick, Carta head of equity, inclusion, and impact, wrote in her book Reimagine Inclusion: “We have no real opportunity to break through our biases, practice and apply what we have learned (because we don’t have enough meaningful cross-cultural relationships allowing us to erase stereotypes), or get to know individuals, one-on-one, on a human level.” She proposed that “the only real way to shatter stereotypes in our head is to expand our social circles.”
There’s no small amount of overlap between how to do that in a professional versus a social context. Just as the most valuable professional networks are built on a foundation of self-reflection—Who might you seek out who shares your values? Who could help you burnish or capitalize on your skills?—personal networks, too, benefit from intentional introspection. Think about your goals, what matters to you, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy. Use those answers to identify outside-of-work opportunities to meet your needs for belonging, candor, kinship, and recognition.
Those needs can be met with varying levels of connection. Broadening contacts and investing in looser connections is preferable for career development and advancement. As the authors of a landmark 2022 paper wrote, it’s “the weakest ties [that] had the greatest impact on job mobility.” And as the Covid pandemic made all too clear, those weak ties are essential for our social well-being, too.
Check in with friends you’ve met professionally, even if you haven’t shared an employer.
During lockdown, I found that people I had met through conferences and industry connections were among those I most missed having meaningful contact with.
Similarly, Mollie Chen, co-founder of Birchbox and operating partner at impact strategy firm Acora, shared with me: “There’s a lot of people I consider professional friends who I can lean on for advice, peers in different industries, or people going through the same kind of seasons of transition or seasons of growth that I might be, and those are people I actually draw on a lot.”
“My appetite for making best friends at work has changed a lot over the years because [of] family pressures and pressures on time,” Chen added. All of the professionals I interviewed said they feel less pressure than they once did to have close friend co-workers, with some suggesting that this partially reflects life stage. “[Now] I think about work friends more in an industry sense.”
Create new rituals to shake things up with your colleagues.
With your current employer, you might plan or recommend casual events to expand beyond usual activities and change social patterns that may have stagnated:
- Service events, such as park cleanups or blood drives. For a 2022 offsite, our Charter staff stamped and sorted books at the Brooklyn Book Bodega, an activity that prompted us to talk about our favorite kids’ literature.
- Other unstructured getting-to-know-you opportunities that encourage psychological safety. Reporter Michelle Peng’s guidance for planning year-end celebrations, written for Charter Pro last year, is relevant here: She encourages “zeroing in on a purpose…whether that’s connection, gratitude, celebration, service, learning, or another goal.”
- Give all participants a +1 for your next gathering and encourage them to bring someone with a unique perspective or set of experiences to share.
Recognize that there’s a wide spectrum of workplace friendship hopes.
Chen noted that work friendships “typically center on a certain type of person who’s comfortable being extroverted.” She said that it’s important for peers and leaders alike to realize that “not everyone wants to be part of a super intense friendship culture.”
In the same way, remember that it’s hard to recreate lightning in a bottle. We may harbor nostalgia for past work situations and favorite former colleagues, especially when they feel far removed from our current working conditions. Those moments are a great time to reach out to others—and especially those beyond our immediate collaborator set.