How to make work friends in remote teams

It’s easy to make work friends in person. Casual conversations struck up around the coffee machine evolve into lunches out, happy hour drinks, and hallway discussions about that one difficult client. Before you know it, you’re running emails past each other and stealing gum from each other’s drawers.

Work friends are a great addition to your life. They make tough projects easier and cheer us up after a bad day. In fact, lots of studies have shown work friendships make us happier, more motivated, and more engaged with our jobs. But when there are no team lunches, watercooler chats, or after-work drinks, how do you make friends? And how do you keep them?

When we emerge from the pandemic, remote work will remain the norm for many, so we’ll need to face these questions head-on. Here’s how to make sure distance isn’t a barrier when it comes to remote friendships.

Why work friendships matter

If we don’t have a friendly connection with someone, we might find them difficult to work with, unreliable, or frustrating. It also makes us more likely to feel isolated from each other and from the organization itself. Employees who have friends at work are generally happier than those who don’t. According to the Harvard Business Review:

  • Nearly 79% of those surveyed consider a coworker to be a friend.
  • Those with a best friend at work were about 30% more likely to report being happy compared to those without one.
  • Those who spent their time near their teammates were twice as likely to feel connected and energized.

How to nurture remote friendships: tips for colleagues

1. Start up a conversation

When we talk to someone online — even if it’s via an informal chat app — it’s tempting to say what you need to and no more. That’s because when it comes to written communication in the workplace, we’re taught to keep things short and sweet. Don’t make extra work or add to people’s already out-of-control inboxes. We’re told this over and over.

It’s time to move away from that kind of thinking. It might feel weird at first, but try to strike up a conversation with someone. Ideally, your workplace will have a chat app with a general thread for non-work convos, but if not, you can nurture that kind of casual chat one-on-one. Here are two tips:

  • Before launching into work talk, start by asking your colleague how they are, how their evening or weekend was, or whether they have plans for an upcoming break.
  • If you have common ground with a colleague — whether that’s a recent addition to the family or a love of cooking — drop them a message based on that. It could be a recipe, parenting meme, or general question. They’ll appreciate the thought and (probably) enjoy the non-work distraction.

2. Keep the friendship alive

When we don’t hear from someone for a while, it’s tempting to think they don’t care when in reality, they’re probably just swamped with life obligations. They might be struggling with something, or perhaps it was an honest mistake. After all, who isn’t guilty of forgetting to reply to a message once in a while?

The first step is to not take it to heart and reach out. Just saying something along the lines of ‘I miss you, fancy a catch up next week?’ should be enough to get the conversation going again, and remind your work friend you’re thinking of them.

If you’re stuck for inspiration, try to recreate rituals you had in work. If you used to go out for coffee once a day, or lunch once a week, set some time aside so you can do these things virtually. Reach out, make time, and get something in the diary.

3. Be vulnerable

It’s so tempting to pretend everything is going well, but the truth is, what people really respond to is vulnerabilities. Why? Because we all have them. We are all slightly odd and struggling with things, and when we’re vulnerable around someone else, it helps them feel slightly less alone.

Sharing your vulnerabilities can happen in lots of different ways. You can divulge unique tidbits about yourself — like an undying love for ABBA, or the fact you love making model airplanes, or a fear of bananas. Or you can be more open about your feelings and invite others to do the same.

Instead of telling someone facts about your day, expand a little and tell them how those events made you feel. The same goes for asking questions: Instead of asking what happened, say things like, “How do you feel now?” or “What’s annoying you right now?” or “What’s been the highlight of your week?” 

It’s also important to not just focus on the good stuff. If everyone is relentlessly positive, it’s difficult for people to share other emotions, like stress, fear, boredom, or loneliness. Turn yourself into a safe space for friends to discuss their emotions, good and bad.

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4. Be there

What we most want from a friend is validation and acceptance. When we’re sad or anxious, or any other difficult emotion, we don’t want someone to tell us to cheer up or give us advice — we want someone to just be there.

Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So, with that in mind, focus on needs rather than getting tied up in what you think you ought to say or do. Don’t underestimate the value of simply being a good listener. The goal is to end the conversation with you both feeling closer, validated, and a little more the kind of person they can turn to for help, support, and acceptance. As a remote friend, the most important thing you can offer is your presence.

Tips for managers

As a manager, it’s your job to ensure the team is happy, productive, and getting along well together. When you’re all working under the same roof, team building days and lunches out are the obvious choices. You need to take a slightly different approach when your team is remote.

1. Set up a weekly coffee catch-up

People naturally gather around the coffee machine/water cooler and chat. There’s no option to do that when the team is miles apart, so as a manager, you can recreate something similar with a virtual coffee (or other non-boozy drink) catch-up.

You can hold a team-wide gathering, or just chat one-on-one with a team member to find out how they’re doing. There’s no goal other than to just connect and chat about non-work things. While there shouldn’t be an agenda, it’s a good idea to think of questions ahead of time so if the conversation topics run dry, you’re there to help move things along.

2. Create team rituals

Traditions arise naturally when everyone works in the same building: coffee runs, team lunches, Friday drinks… When your team’s remote, you might need to kick-start these things yourself. Rituals create familiarity and help people feel included — two things that are vital for remote worker wellbeing. Here are some ideas:

  • A weekly team quiz (Friday is always a good day for this). Send it out to the whole team either in the morning to complete throughout the day or finish work an hour early and do it all together via video or team chat.
  • A music playlist where every member of the group submits their favorite guilty pleasure. Employees can tune in whenever they need some background distraction. This has the added bonus of sparking conversation between team members. (How else are the secret *NSYNC fans going to find each other?)
  • Plan a food or drink delivery to each individual that they can enjoy together as part of a virtual Friday team lunch. Just remember not to make any of these obligatory: If there’s anything worse than no team traditions, it’s being forced to join in with ones you’re not enjoying.

Make it easy to communicate

Communication is vital for remote teams. When everyone’s physically together in a workplace, people can rely on email, phone, plus casual chats, formal meetings, one-on-ones… the list goes on. When people are separated by distance, face-to-face options are drastically reduced.

Managers should make sure team members have a range of ways to communicate, including email, phone, video, and chat apps. As well as making sure everyone has access to the tech and knows how to use it, it’s important managers do the following:

  • Have some communication processes in place so people know what to do and who to reach out to in specific situations.
  • Make sure everyone knows how to treat each other fairly and overcome different barriers to communication.
  • Carve out some time and space for people to socialize. If you use a chat app, set up a ‘general’ or ‘random’ thread, so team members can discuss important topics like what they did over the weekend.
  • Make use of other collaboration platforms, including project management tools and virtual whiteboards.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re a team member or a manager, basic principles apply when it comes to workplace friendships: Initiative and time are key.

As a team member, you need to reach out, then commit to spending some time with someone — whether that’s a virtual coffee or a friendly chat. If you’re a manager, it’s about identifying ways to help team members communicate and then do everything you can to foster continued communication.

Keeping remote friendships alive is hard, but with a little effort on both sides, it can still feel like you’re feet apart instead of miles.

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