What you gain with remote work — increased flexibility and productivity — comes at the expense of interacting and socializing with colleagues in person. Here are some tips to help deal with that.
By Anna Goldfarb
J’Leen Manning Saeger misses her friends from work. As a Spanish lecturer at Trinity University in San Antonio, Ms. Manning Saegar and other members of her tight-knit department would regularly bounce ideas off one another and discuss their upcoming projects.
“I could feel these friendships forming little by little, and then the pandemic hits,” she said. “And now we just don’t see each other.”
Even though she misses her colleagues, she fears she’d come off as pushy or invasive if she dropped a line to her work friends. The lack of communication has sent her mind spinning. “You start to make up stories in your mind that they already have their friends, or they don’t care, or they’re busy with their family,” Dr. Manning Saeger said. “There’s all these reasons why not to reach out.”
But this insecurity and cloud of doubt are a natural response to being disconnected from the workplace, said Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and the author of “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.”
“The easy part of work friendships is that those are friendships that you don’t often have to schedule in,” she said, adding that now we not only have to plan our interactions with friends at work, but we have to plan them in a way that many of these friendships have never been carried out before.
What you gain with remote work — increased flexibility and productivity — comes at the expense of interacting and socializing with colleagues in person. A recent survey from Morning Consult found that 58 percent of remote workers feel disconnected from their co-workers, and 44 percent of respondents reported feeling more isolated and lonely working from home, too.
It’s important to remember that this pandemic “came upon us without any warning whatsoever,” said Reginald Cunningham, a psychologist. “Now we have to get to a level of, ‘OK, this is here. I’ve got to deal with this. I’ve got to keep moving forward.’”
For those reeling from these sudden, long-term changes at their workplace, moving forward might look like grieving the loss of community you enjoyed with your colleagues. Here’s how to strategize to keep these valuable work friendships afloat despite the distance.
Identify which parts of office life you’re missing the most. Is it the small talk in the break room, the daily check-ins over lunch or the camaraderie of tackling a problem together? Once you identify which elements you’re longing for, then you can be upfront with your work friends about what you need to regain some closeness, experts said.
“Right now, during Covid-19, I think is the perfect time to be transparent with our needs,” said Lupe Nambo, a licensed marriage and family therapist. We might assume our co-workers know that we’d like to talk more frequently, but if you haven’t communicated your wishes to them, she said, then they aren’t going to be able to show up in the way you need or expect.
Go ahead and reach out
Don’t be shy about creating a new pattern for these friendships, Ms. Nelson said. It might feel uncomfortable to say, “Hey, I miss you,” but she recommends expressing that because we don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last. Just knowing you have this connection with cherished co-workers “will do so much for you feeling engaged and supported and seen,” she said.
If it’s been a while since you’ve talked to a favorite acquaintance at work, Ms. Nambo recommends sending a low-stakes text, Slack or email saying, “Hey, I’m just thinking about you. I hope you’re doing all right.” Or sending an email that says, “Hey, I miss you. I hope you’re doing OK.” You don’t have to overwhelm the other person by organizing a virtual get-together right off the bat, she said. The goal is to just touch base and then see how it goes (and, of course, be mindful of professionalism and company culture and protocols).
If you’re looking for more connection with a colleague you’ve already maintained some communication with, Ms. Nambo recommends coming up with ways you can increase the intimacy of your interactions. This could look like:
Posting photos and updates in an online group.
Sharing interesting or relevant articles you’ve read.
Chatting in a dedicated Slack channel.
Scheduling lunch dates over Zoom.
Planning a virtual happy hour.
Organizing a socially distanced picnic in the park.
Ms. Nambo suggests keeping workplace-related gossip to a minimum when you speak to one another, as the goal is to unwind and focus on bringing back the friendship you enjoyed so much.
All that said: Be mindful if co-workers are too overwhelmed for extra communication, and try to be receptive to any subtle hints they might give to indicate they don’t have the time or mental space to chat.
Schedule a check-in
By switching to remote work, what “we’ve lost is proximity and spontaneity,” Ms. Nelson said. “And those were two of the drivers that made workplace friendships easier than our nonwork relationships.” Therefore we need to be more proactive about maintaining contact with one another. Pick a day when you reach out — say, Thursdays — and schedule check-ins with one or two co-workers. Treat it like an appointment.
“Even a 15-minute phone call is going to leave you feeling more connected than almost anything else you can schedule into your day,” Ms. Nelson said. Chatting on the phone not only gives you a break from draining video calls, but it will leave you both feeling more connected than texting or email.
Make your conversations meaningful
Ms. Nelson encourages you to come up with a few topics — TV shows or movies you’ve been watching, podcasts you’ve been bingeing, foods you’ve been preparing — before you call your colleague. Share what’s really going on in your life.
For new co-workers you’re just getting to know, she recommends asking questions like:
“What attracted you to this field?”
“Tell me what part of work you’re loving the most.”
“What are you working on these days?”
A conversation like this “doesn’t take a ton of deep, deep vulnerability or a lot of time, and yet it will do a huge, huge payoff,” Ms. Nelson said. Keep an eye on the clock so you don’t overstay your welcome. If you request a 15-minute phone call, make sure you talk for only that amount of time.
Offer to help
If you’re hesitant about reaching out to busy co-workers for fear of disturbing them, see if there’s anything you can do to make their day easier. Maybe you can brainstorm ideas together or assist them in resolving a problem. Give an out like, “If I don’t hear back from you by tomorrow, I’ll assume you’ve got everything under control.”
What matters most is that you put forth the effort. If you can make co-workers or colleagues feel seen and supported, “they’re going to love it,” Ms. Nelson said.
“You’re going to be closer to them and they’re going to feel closer to you,” she said, so when you do eventually return to the office, your bond will stay strong.
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