How to make work friends when you WFH

Peter Gamlen

Working from home creates an emotional and professional paradox: Many of us much prefer virtual meetings in sweats, but we also want to get to know the people we work with and enjoy non-digital banter. In short, some people are virtually exhausted and want to be able to form professional and personal bonds outside of a Zoom window. I asked career coaches for their best advice about how we can make work friends if you WFH — without (significantly) increasing our screen time.

Work friendships fill a very specific role in our lives. They can provide comfort and support in stressful situations and they can also help uplevel our careers. “Our work relationships are unlike any others,” says Lauren Cook, a California-based therapist and career coach. “You're often working with people who may have similar traits as you and may align with the values of the company in the same way that you do.” Finding individuals with important commonalities isn’t just fulfilling, it’s also professionally strategic. Up to 80% of jobs get filled through personal professional connections. Here’s how to make sure you are nurturing these critical relationships.

Come early to virtual meetings and stay late

My life is full of Zoom meetings, so when someone suggests a separate, non-obligatory Zoom hang, I almost always say no. Even if I like someone a lot, I just can’t hang out in that small rectangular box all day without feeling like I am becoming Siri or something. But you can have a little hang time with folks without committing to a whole extra meeting. It’s the virtual equivalent of lingering at the conference table to gossip. Kimberly Cummings, a career coach in NYC, advises trying to recreate as many of these casual professional encounters as possible to stay in the loop.

I tried lingering at a few of my meetings last week, and I am here to report that it was a great idea. Because the last person at a group mentorship meeting happened to be the hosts, I got some one-on-one face time with them that I wouldn’t ordinarily get to have. Because we had some extra, meaningful interaction about a particular issue, they explicitly solicited my advice during the next group meeting. Not only did that feel like an ego-boost, it also helped make meeting virtually a lot more pleasant because I was engaged. Spending that extra few minutes lingering in the Zoom room paid off so well that I plan to be the last person to leave every meeting I can.

Call people on the phone

Pre-pandemic, talking on the phone felt like something we did way back when Facetime wasn't a thing. It might be time to bring this retro fad back, because it cuts down on screen time but still allows you to connect with people in a more organic way. It may feel weird to randomly call a co-worker, but if you use a little planning, talking on the phone can be a great way to collaborate, debrief, or decompress.

Cummings has some great ideas about how to integrate phone calls into your professional life, even if you’re not used to it. “If a meeting ended five minutes early and you would have debriefed with a colleague, reach out and see if you can hop on a quick call,” she says.

Or, Cummings recommends, you can try something that introduces some of the accidental nature of water cooler conversations back into your virtual world. If you would generally “run-into” someone at a particular event, set a reminder on your phone to try to schedule a call with them around that date and time, Cummings recommends.

Do things with people IRL

If you live in the same area as a co-worker, you can hang out with them — safely and socially distanced, if need be — even if you both work at home. That may seem obvious, but as a person who knows that I have several colleagues in my area that I’ve never met, I know that it’s not.

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Making friends at work is all about replicating some of the things that used to serve us in our work lives within this new paradigm. For example, if you generally had a team outing on the last Friday of the month, coordinate team happy hours at that same time to celebrate the end of the workweek, says Cummings.

Making friends virtually isn’t that different from online dating in that everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make the first move.

This gives those in your group who crave social interaction something to look forward to and it also helps establish some of time markers that we need as humans to stay happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but I have had to be really strategic about creating a personal rhythm since the beginning of the pandemic. Otherwise, I’m not sure what day or week it is. If you organize an outing that occurs at regular intervals, you’ll be doing everyone a favor. Plus, cocktails.

Be the initiator

In some ways, making friends virtually isn’t that different from online dating in that everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make the first move. What that means is that, just like on Tinder, nothing happens and therefore nothing keeps happening. Don’t be that guy. Even if making the first move feels kind of awkward, try to remember that it will probably feel really nice for the other party if you do. “Most people are flattered when a colleague wants to get to know them better, Cook says.

Okay, but what if you’re rejected by your co-worker and now you have to spend all day on Slack with them wondering why they don’t like you? Try not to take it personally, Cook advises. Truly, jumping back into a social life after so many months of lockdown can be jarring, and everyone’s taking it at their own pace.

Look, making friends as an adult is hard, and the pandemic isn’t making things any easier. But not only can you do it, you need to do it for both the sake of your sanity and the sake of your career. “One of my biggest fears about the future of work after COVID-19 is that professionals who have not mastered how to continue to build relationships will be unable to make their next moves with ease,” Cummings admitted.

So, even if you’re an introvert or you have social anxiety, putting yourself out there might be worth the effort. Your willingness to be friendly will benefit everyone, and it doesn’t have to be rocket science As Cook says, just, “show your humanness and allow others to be real with you as well.”