Why Your (Remote) Office Needs a Few Friends

Office friendships are an underappreciated part of your culture. Leaders don't have to make everybody pals, but in a remote environment, it pays to encourage them.

Every so often, I miss office hallways.

It’s not that hallways are so charming in themselves. They’re just blank, anonymous, in-between spaces. But that’s what makes them so powerful. Because they have no strict role, they can be used to have the kinds of conversations that you can’t in more official parts of an office. It’s a common enough concept that film and TV writer Aaron Sorkin has practically built a career around hallway conversations. (If you’re a fan of spy fiction, swap in “bridge” for “hallway.”) The hallway is where pecking orders outside the org-chart get established. At a convention center, it’s where the networking gets done. And at the office, it’s where friendships are made.

We’re neutralizing the social aspect of work.

So the hallway is not a small thing—your organization’s culture comes from everybody’s sense of belonging, and that culture is often established through the informal channels that the hallway provides. In the Atlantic, reporter Nicole Mo recently wrote about the impact that the lack of those informal channels is having on offices in the wake of COVID-19. Work friendships are a boon to productivity and loyalty, research shows, and remote work has made those relationships a challenge. As organizational-behavior researcher Hilla Dotan tells Mo, “What we’re doing through virtual work is we’re neutralizing the social aspect of [work].”

Workers can certainly maintain office friendships on their own time, of course. But the dynamic is inevitably different, Mo reports, and more prone to erode thanks to the additional stresses that everything the pandemic (and the daily news) delivers. Social psychologist Evelyn R. Carter tells Mo that in the new environment, it’d be wrong to think “there aren’t people who are hurting or who are thinking that they had those genuine, trusting relationships and are realizing they don’t.”

“Help maintain employees’ social lives” isn’t in the association CEO’s job description. But one way or another, you have a role in them, and neglecting that fact has consequences. Last week the New York Times reported on the current crisis at Airbnb, which has found its social dynamic change radically due to layoffs and a shift to remote work. The company’s entire culture is built around conviviality—its business is built on strangers sharing their homes, after all—but the changes to the company has eroded the bonds that culture created, according to the report.

Contractors who were publicly declared to be “teammates and friends” were summarily dismissed, and employees took to the company’s Slack—the closest thing to an office hallway for many organizations these days—to vent. That venting led to venting about other internal issues. That old culture of friendship wasn’t an official benefit, but it functioned like one. “Part of the compensation is being part of this family,” Wharton professor Ethan Mollick told the Times. “Now the family goes away, and the deal is sort of changed. It just becomes a job.”

Leadership’s role in this situation is tricky. As much as I might miss the office hallway, I emphatically do not miss the kinds of forced-fun bonding exercises that have launched countless TV and movie satires. For many workers, a temporary end to holiday parties, Skee-Ball outings, and officially sanctioned happy hours can only be one of the scarce blessings of the COVID-19 era. The virtue of the office friendship is that it happens organically. So, create the opportunity for it to happen organically.

Recently, organizational scholars Alana Cookman and Gayle Karen Young Whyte wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the need for organizations to cultivate what they call “microshifts”—small changes in how organizations are run to boost collaboration and improve morale. That can include, they write, “integrating well-being into strategic planning,” and one way to accomplish that is to establish spaces where a sense of belonging can occur. Transparency from the top is one way; another is “opportunities to really get to know colleagues through reflection and check-in exercises.”

That can mean more opportunities for employees to share their challenges balancing work and home life, instead of pretending it’s not a challenge. It can mean being open enough about the organization’s own challenges that workers can share their own. Sharing those experiences that aren’t directly related to jobs but are inescapably related to work can foster the friendships that are part of your culture. If you can’t provide your people with a physical hallway, it’s worth the effort to encourage them to build one themselves.

(nadia_bormotova/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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