Crystal Powers began a new job remotely in February 2022 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. It just doesn’t translate as well to a remote environment,” said the 42-year-old Powers, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Just 2 in 10 adult U.S. employees say they definitely have a “best friend” at work, according to a quarterly Gallup survey done in June 2022. The percentage under age 35 dropped by 3 points when compared to pre-pandemic 2019, to 21% from 24%, said Gallup workplace and well-being researcher Jim Harter. There was no such change for workers 35 and up, he said.
Having a best friend at work has become even more important since the dramatic rise in remote and hybrid employment, Harter said.
“We’re seeing in the data that younger people in general are feeling more disconnected from their workplaces,” he said. “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.”
For many employees during the pandemic, particularly parents, educators and frontline workers, such friendships offered social and emotional support at a critical time, Gallup said.
They also benefited employers. Gallup 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 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 nonprofit 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,” said the 52-year-old Piatt, who lives just outside Seattle. “It was nearly two years until I met my colleagues face-to-face.”
When she finally did, at a retreat last year, “it was really special,” she said. “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, Harter said. Without strong positive feelings for an employer, “You can have friendships at work that are likely to be dysfunctional and probably turn into gripe sessions.”
Powers said her team is mostly nearing retirement age. One is younger than she is. She is the only manager hired since the pandemic who is 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,” she said.
Most of her staff live about 45 minutes away from the office and were commuting in before the pandemic. Powers knows her team has casual, digital get-togethers without her. She does biweekly check-ins with each.
“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,” she said.
Yet Powers 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,” she said.
Henry Crabtree, 26, in London, said that when you have work friends, “You’re not only working with each other but for each other.”
He was hired in December 2021 onto a small marketing team for a software company that has workers around the globe.
“Seeing each other outside work, especially when colleagues are over from other countries, really helps forge these friendships,” he said.
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,” he said.
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, cites many benefits to work friends from all standpoints. Worker retention is on the top of his list.
“Secondly, what we found is it fosters workplace harmony. I’m not talking about sexual relationships. When you’re at work, we have an interest in ensuring that `family’ life is calm, peaceful and doesn’t have drama. So from an employee relations standpoint, when I get heated and upset about something, that person sitting next to me who’s my bestie can say, `Johnny, chill out.'”
He, too, draws a distinction between close friendships and more distant ones at work.
“If there’s a disagreement between besties, time will usually heal,” Taylor said. “That’s not always true for other friendships.”
Gallup found that workers sometimes “need the OK” from leaders to develop close friendships on the job. Taylor agrees.
More companies, he said, are actively encouraging friendships. 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, backgrounds, etc.,” Taylor said. “The idea is, you go to lunch with a stranger and make them a friend.”