Finding work friends: Tips to combat loneliness in the workplace

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Twice each month, executives at the dating app company Hinge gather for a team meeting. But rather than dive into discussions about metrics or revenue, they begin by simply talking.

For the first 30 minutes of the two-hour meeting, these coworkers reveal hopes and anxieties — what they worry about, what they’re grateful for, what they’re feeling.

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Even at a company focused on connecting people, forging real relationships in the workplace takes effort, Hinge CEO Justin McLeod told an audience at the South by Southwest conference earlier this year.

He was co-presenting at the event with Ann Shoket, whose initiative to combat workplace loneliness is called “10 Minutes to Togetherness.”

As America navigates what Surgeon General Vivek Murthy described last year as a loneliness epidemic, employers and employees across the country are trying to address what for many people is a lack of real friendships at work.

Remote meetings of `little heads in squares’

The problem of loneliness has been bubbling for decades; Robert D. Putnam documented it in his groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone” nearly a quarter-century ago. Remote work has only intensified the problem, for extroverts and introverts alike, says leadership expert Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “How to Work with (Almost) Anyone.”

“People have this desire to be seen and be heard,” Bungay Stanier says, but on video calls, the group gets right to the business at hand rather than having the natural, informal interactions of a real room. It reduces people to “little heads in squares.”

It’s not easy to talk about this lack of friendship at work “because it feels like a shameful confession,” Bungay Stanier says. But his clients are beginning to bring up the subject.

Awkward as it may be, these are conversations worth having, according to psychology professor Laurie Santos, creator of Yale University’s well-known class “The Science of Well Being.”

At-work friendships are good for employers, too

In her own presentation at South by Southwest earlier this year, Santos cited research that showed workplace friendships and a sense of belonging are vital to employees’ happiness –- and companies’ success.

We assume that friendships at work are “a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have,” she said.

But “maybe one of the reasons we’re all so disengaged at work, maybe one of the reasons ‘quiet quitting’ seems so appealing, is that we’re actively not investing in the thing that might matter the most for our happiness at work, which is our connection with other people,” Santos said.

New spaces, new programs and `casual collisions’

Some large companies began paying more attention to employee health long before the pandemic, often focusing on the physical: adding a gym to the office building or serving healthier food in the cafeteria.

Today, more employers “are not just checking boxes, but actually looking at ways to really enhance people’s health and well-being,” says Suzanne Heidelberger, who has led teams managing real-estate properties for global companies including American Express and Fidelity Investments.

She focuses on bringing a hospitality mindset to corporate spaces.

For example, employers might:

  1. Rethink physical spaces with relationships in mind, she says. Some companies are adding staircases, both to help people get more steps and to encourage the “casual collisions” that can lead to good relationships. Some are trying to transform green rooftops — created to be environmentally friendly — into gathering spaces.
  2. Create groups and events to help employees find friends who share their interests. “It could even be something goofy, like an ice cream social for dog lovers, where we’re going to teach you how to make healthy ice cream for your dog,” Heidelberger says.
  3. Offer online gatherings as well. During the pandemic, American Express offered online cooking classes that helped employees feel connected and introduced them to coworkers.

What employees can do

Employees are also seeking answers on their own, notes executive coach Daniel Boscaljon, founder of the Healthy Relationship Academy, which helps organizations build better workplaces.

It’s not always easy: As much as people crave relationships, he says, many lack strong interpersonal skills.

“When you meet somebody with good relationship skills, a lot of times it’s like magic,” Boscaljon says.

“People open up, they’ll start to talk, they’ll feel comfortable. Then, sometimes, they’ll have kind of a ‘vulnerability hangover,’ where they’re like, ‘I was too open there. What just happened?’… People are so unused to it.”

One key, he says, is to work on one’s own well-being. “You can’t have a work personality and a home personality,” he says. “Who you are as a whole person shows up in every place that you’re in.”

Another strategy, according to Bungay Stanier, is to communicate with coworkers about how you can best work together before you dive into a project.

“We’ve all got our small little habits and preferences,” he says. “And we assume what’s normal for us is normal for everyone.”

Raising issues beforehand helps you “avoid making small rips in the fabric of a relationship” that keep people from becoming friends, Bungay Stanier says.

Those inevitable rips are also worth discussing. “The relationships that thrive are ones that get repaired,” he says.

Say hi

More than anything, remember the importance of everyday greetings at work — even if they make you a bit uncomfortable. A simple hello, Bungay Stanier says, could be the beginning of the end of loneliness.

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