Work friendships are key for team camaraderie, but how do you cultivate them remotely?
Hands down, one of the benefits of an office environment is the ability to hang out with our work friends. There’s a reason why the term “work spouse” has become so common. Whether your work friends are like family or you just have one buddy who has made an otherwise toxic workplace tolerable, for most of us work is where we connect with someone who lifts our spirits and makes the day much more enjoyable. While work friendships boost morale and our overall well-being, they also play a critical role in enhancing team effectiveness. If you question that, throw a group of people together who really don’t like each other, give them a complicated task to complete and see how well that works out.
There are so many reasons why work friendships really matter, but how do you nurture – much less cultivate – a work friendship on a remote team? One thing this Covid-19 pandemic has taught virtually everyone is the importance of being creative and flexible, and those skills become critically important here. Yes, we can cultivate those intimate work friendships remotely – we just may need to do it in a different way. Certainly, your approach may differ depending on the level of existing relationship before the shift to remote work, so select the techniques that best fit your particular situation.
Whether you’re a leader trying to encourage friendships within the team, a new hire looking to connect with strangers or a team member who really needs that friendship connection to operate at peak performance, here are a few techniques that can help.
How leaders can encourage friendships within their remote team
Acknowledge the importance of friendships
The first step for encouraging work friendships is acknowledging their importance and destigmatizing any negative concepts around connecting with others simply to enhance relationships. Friendship expert and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time, Shasta Nelson suggests that leaders have an important role to play by emphasizing the importance of work friendships with their teams. “Name it (friendship), give permission to it, encourage it, tell your own experience of how helpful it has been to you,” explains Nelson. “Spend time highlighting all the resources your organization has that might help your team members feel more connected: employee resource groups, book clubs, events, etc.”
Sponsor “friendship matchmaking”
While this may sound a little odd, the truth is that friendships may develop quite naturally and organically for some, but they can be quite difficult to cultivate for others – particularly those who might be newer to the team, naturally more introverted or those with less in common with others. Obviously, remote working robs us of all those friendship building moments throughout the day – banter before the meeting starts, jokes in the break room, or catching up quickly during a shared elevator ride. Unfortunately, without those random daily connection opportunities, relationships can easily atrophy or just fail to take off without intentional intervention.
To address this problem Nelson advises, “Offer to set up 3 matched conversations for those who would like to opt-in to be connected with another team member once a week for the sole purpose of getting to know each other better.” This might be even more impactful when executed at the broader organizational level to not just yield greater numbers but also provide opportunities for more impactful relationship building across organizational lines.
Assign co-leads for select projects or tasks
Another approach that leaders can use to encourage work friendships is assigning certain tasks or projects to two person co-leads instead of a single person. Obviously, this practice wouldn’t work well for certain tasks but for others it can be a great way for two team members to bond through the process of a task or project that spans a few weeks or months. This strategy can be particularly effective for team members who wouldn’t typically work together or may not have much in common. The common task/goal gives them an obvious point of commonality and oftentimes the relationship building takes place quite organically as a result of their need to connect regularly.
How team members can foster or sustain work friendships with each other
Schedule regular virtual coffee breaks
Many of us normally take a break with a friend during the work day to grab coffee and vent, catch up or otherwise allow our minds the chance to unwind and detach from the pressures of the day. This brief respite can not only rejuvenate our ideas and mental state but also provide opportunities to build rewarding friendships that feed our spirit. Author of Softening the Edge and host of the podcast Empathy for Breakfast, Mimi Nicklin recommends virtual shared coffee lunch breaks for those interested. “What can start being slightly staged can often end with raucous laughter and the deeper feeling of connectedness that we once took for granted,” explains Nicklin.
Use ice breakers to find points of commonality
It’s crazy how a single point of commonality can spark a friendship. Whether it’s a common hobby, a shared favorite sports team or similar parenting struggles, these small connection points can provide entry points to longer term relationships. So finding these points of commonality can oftentimes offer a “fast pass” on the journey from acquaintance to friend. The question then becomes…how do you find out your points of commonality in a business setting? If you’re newer to the team, consider asking others to share their life story in 5 minutes to help you get to know them. If you’re leading meetings, begin each one asking participants to share a little-known fact – something that no one else on the call knows about them – during introductions. These small bits of personal trivia can create a natural pathway to new friendships.
Check in on team members periodically
To say that the Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented stress levels for friends and colleagues is an understatement. While the reality is that oftentimes there’s not much you can do to help a colleague who is anxious about an ailing parent or speculating about the pandemic’s long term impact on their career trajectory, just reaching out occasionally to check in with them can be so meaningful. Beyond demonstrating a sense of empathy, there may also be ways you can actually step in to lighten their load. Offering to help a colleague’s child with their schoolwork for 20 minutes might be the best gift they could get that week, and it’s an awesome way to demonstrate your commitment to a friend.
“Remember that we are social beings,” explains Nicklin. “To ignore friendships is to ignore human nature and when it comes to business results and outcomes, ignoring our shared humanity never ends well.” Just like long distance relationships, working remotely creates barriers and challenges, but we can still preserve and even enhance key relationships. As teams work remotely for extended periods of time, it’s natural to focus on ways to keep productivity high, but it’s just as important to focus on maintaining morale and strong relationships. Focusing on friendships may seem like a luxury, but arguably they’re the building blocks of a strong, high trust team environment.