Loneliness at work: Why losing work friendships, work spouse is bad

Loneliness at work: Why losing work friendships, work spouse is bad

juliaart/Getty, 5second/Getty, Tyler Le/BI

  • Having work friends has perks for workers and employers alike.
  • Gallup’s Ben Wigert said people’s best friends at work “create a sense of trust, belonging, and connection.”
  • From work acquaintances to “work spouses,” connections have changed amid hybrid and remote work.

Back in the pre-pandemic, full-time office era, Erin Mantz, 54, often had someone at work she could trust, commiserate with, count on, and have fun with — her “work spouse.”

“It’s not like a dating app,” Mantz said. “I wasn’t actively out there being like, ‘Who can I pick?’ It just sort of happened organically.”

But now Mantz doesn’t have a work spouse at Zeno Group where she’s the vice president of employee engagement. While working a hybrid model could be a reason, Mantz speculated it also could be because she’s part of an older generation “in a company that skews probably younger,” working from a smaller office than many of her coworkers, or because of her level at the company.

With the rise of remote and hybrid work following the pandemic, work relationships have forever changed. Experts told BI that while workers tend to value more flexibility in the workplace — which remote and hybrid work allow — younger workers might gravitate toward in-person roles in the hopes doing so will facilitate social connections and deeper relationships. If they can’t, they’ll be more likely to experience loneliness.

A lack of work friends can be bad news for workers and employers. Ben Wigert, director of research for Gallup’s workplace management practice, said in a written statement that people’s best friends at work “create a sense of trust, belonging, and connection.”

“Humans need each other and collaborate more effectively when they have real relationships,” Wigert said. “If you’re worried that a friendship will prevent people from being candid and productive, you have bigger underlying problems on your team. Great teams will attest who you work with makes all the difference.”

Wigert noted “disruptive changes from where we work to the pace of work, how we serve our customers, rampant turnover, and a lot of restructuring.” It could mean that employees and employers alike need to go the extra mile to build up that camaraderie. Mantz found that it’s up to each person to reach out, chat with people, and make an effort to get to know them better.

“Because in this world, this hybrid world — and even if you’re not a remote worker, but maybe your company has offices all over the country or all over the world — you’re not going to organically be sitting next to someone where you can just chat,” Mantz said. “So I think you have to push yourself a little bit to be a little bit more outgoing and interested in people.”

How workplace connections have changed

With remote work, developing a work-spouse relationship is much more difficult due to limited in-person interactions.

Vicki Salemi, career expert for job-search site Monster, said in a written statement that this type of connection may be less close when working remotely full-time compared to when working a hybrid model or always working from an office.

“Plus, part of the work spouse relationship involves having that person to have your back, navigate office politics together and more and when you’re remote, there are fewer opportunities to interact in person with social dynamics of the office,” Salemi said.

Julianna Pillemer, an assistant professor of management and organization at New York University, told BI that the rise of remote work meant we are losing out on the key places that often facilitate closer relationships.

“This might look like the water cooler, the photocopier room, the break room, the hallway where people gather, any space that’s just kind of like where people serendipitously bump into each other,” she said. “That has traditionally been really important for fostering personal connections between employees.”

Still, Pillemer said, relationships aren’t all lost with remote work. Connecting through online interfaces like Zoom can allow coworkers to see each other’s living spaces and pets, which can often be more intimate than a water cooler chat. The issue often arises when virtual social events end up being a mandatory, overplanned burden; it’s not the same as spontaneously deciding to get drinks after work.

“A reason why I think Zoom happy hours backfired so hard is people don’t want to feel forced,” Pillemer said. “It’s mandatory fun.”

While some might discount water cooler chats as shallow small talk, Pillemer also noted it could help spark professional development. If a person is frequently in the office and actively looking to connect with others, they might be considered first for a promotion or a big project over someone who is fully remote.

Wigert noted that work best friends, work spouses, and similarly strong work connections can lead to being “more engaged, productive, and committed to their organization.”

What work friendships and spouses look like for younger and older workers

Another challenge with the modern workplace is differing demands among generations. Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard’s Business School and co-leader of the school’s Managing the Future of Work Initiative, told BI that while older workers tend to be “a product of routine” and are more comfortable with the pre-pandemic fully in-person work schedule, younger workers are used to the flexibility of the workplace and are less likely to give that up.

But still, Fuller said, “If you are working hybrid a lot, you’re not forming friendships, you’re not broadening your personal network, you’re not meeting people to socialize with, date, whatever else. And so you see in 20-somethings, in a lot of industries, an actual desire to go to the office.”

Mantz finds the pros of having a work spouse outweigh the cons and said while it depends on the company and work culture, she thinks people in younger or older generations relative to Gen X don’t really have this connection.

“I see a lot of the younger generations having a lot of really great, positive, friendly working relationships with people at the office,” Mantz said. “A lot of folks who they work with, they would even call friends, but I think Gen X felt a need to really form alliances. So, while it was important to be friendly with everyone, I think we were a bit more cynical.”

If you’re new to the workplace and don’t want to feel lonely in the workplace or just hoping to make some friends at work, Mantz suggested looking into company offerings, such as mentorship programs or even workplace book clubs. Mantz also advised people to reach out to people outside their generation.

“I think that that’s a really important thing to do and not discount, well, that person doesn’t seem like me, so I’m not going to make an effort if you will, because it really is a lot about forming relationships and alliances,” Mantz said. “Kindness and interest go a long way, and I don’t think that changes across the generations.”

What is your experience with work friendships, work spouses, and loneliness at work? Reach out to these reporters to share at mhoff@businessinsider.com and asheffey@businessinsider.com.

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