Crystal Powers began a new job remotely last February as a medical records supervisor. She has yet to meet two of the five people who report to her in person and has found it challenging to bond with her fellow managers online.
“I was used to that face to face of going into people’s cubicles and talking with them one on one,” she says. “It just doesn’t translate as well to a remote environment.”
Just a fifth of adult U.S. employees say they definitely have a “best friend” at work, according to a quarterly Gallup Inc. survey conducted in June 2022. Having a best friend at work has become even more important since the dramatic rise in remote and hybrid employment, says Jim Harter, workplace and well-being researcher at Gallup.
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“We’re seeing in the data that younger people in general are feeling more disconnected from their workplaces. You can attribute some of that potentially to remote work. If they’re less connected to their workplace, they have fewer opportunities to connect with other colleagues and to develop those kinds of friendships that they might have had in the past.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, such friendships offered social and emotional support at a critical time for many employees — particularly parents, educators and frontline workers. These friendships also benefited employers; the survey found a strong link between workers with best friends on the job and profitability, safety, inventory control and retention.
Employees who have a bestie at work are also significantly more likely to engage customers and internal partners, get more done in less time, support a safe workplace with fewer accidents and innovate and share ideas, according to the research.
Karen Piatt started a new job with a medical relief not-for-profit just a few weeks into the pandemic lockdowns of 2020. She did all of her interviewing for the post online and works remotely full time. “It’s the first time in my 25-year career that I was hired for a job without meeting the hiring manager in person. It was nearly two years until I met my colleagues face to face.”
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When she finally did, at a retreat last year, it was really special,” she says. “We hugged and talked as if we had known each other for years. In fact, we had.”
Best friends on the job are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to workers’ well-being and added value to employers, says Harter. Without strong positive feelings for an employer, he adds, “you can have friendships at work that are likely to be dysfunctional and probably turn into gripe sessions.”
Powers says her team is mostly nearing retirement age. She’s the only manager hired since the pandemic who’s handling a full-time remote staff. Team building has been challenging.
“They’re not super-interested in doing icebreaker-type stuff or things like trivia get-togethers. It’s been more challenging than it has been in past positions to get buy-ins on things and earn the trust in me as a supervisor, because they still don’t really know me.”
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Yet Powers says she likes working remotely. “I’m hopeful that over time, we’ll come up with strategies to better engage both with our colleagues and with our subordinates to make it successful.”
Harter draws a distinction between levels of trust among work besties and more casual work friends. “It’s a lot more difficult to establish close kinds of relationships when you’re more distant.”
Gallup found workers sometimes “need the OK” from leaders to develop close friendships on the job. Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, agrees. His organization, with nearly 500 employees around the world, is one of a growing number of employers that buy lunches for people who invite somebody they’re not close with to a meal as a way to foster new ties.
“From a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint, we’re trying to get people together who have different sets of experiences, lived experiences [and] backgrounds. The idea is, you go to lunch with a stranger and make them a friend.”
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