Why You Need Friends at Work

Building friendly relationships with colleagues, especially those outside your immediate work group, can not only make work more enjoyable, but can increase cooperation, decrease stress and help you succeed in your current role and prepare for the next one.
Just like a friendly neighbor will lend a hand in a pinch, when you build social capital at work, colleagues share expertise, time and insights that can make the difference between a project succeeding or careening off track. Unfortunately, there is a good chance your professional relationships have lost some of their vitality over the past year+ of working remotely or even being on-site while wearing masks and observing social distancing.
Looking for the ties that bind
Research from Microsoft conducted about one year into the pandemic found that both individuals and teams were becoming more siloed and that connections to people outside one’s immediate work group had suffered the most. Many of the ad hoc conversations that used to happen in the hallway, at the vending machine or riding the elevator have vanished for now.
That’s important, because those conversations often helped you meet someone new, secure needed advice, gain an unexpected insight or even provide an opportunity to pitch an idea or highlight your own accomplishments. Without those unique windows for building social capital, many of us have seen our networks shrink.
People who need people
The Microsoft researchers dug deep into how work has changed since early 2020 with more than 50 studies, by analyzing literally trillions of emails, chats, posts and meetings, and surveying more than 30,000 people across 31 countries. Writing about their results in Harvard Business Review, they reported that many people felt disconnected and many networks had shrunk. While a lot of folks still kept in close contact with those they work with most frequently, their more tangential relationships had fallen off.   
That’s especially concerning because Microsoft’s data also show that strong workplace networks are critical to productivity and innovation. “. . . those who said their interactions with colleagues have decreased this year were less likely to be thriving at things that lead to innovation, like thinking strategically, collaborating or brainstorming with others, and proposing innovative ideas,” the researchers shared.
It's particularly true for younger workers whose networks were likely shallower and smaller to begin with and who likely had less effective onboarding, training and mentoring during the pandemic.  
Getting closer
Whether you continue working remotely, in a hybrid environment or on-site, building social capital will be critical well beyond the pandemic and throughout your career. Consider these thoughts from Microsoft and others on how to foster more collegial relationships.   
  • Introduce yourself and others. When someone new joins the team, or even in an area physically or functionally adjacent, get to know them. Scheduling even 15 minutes to chat can form the basis for a larger relationship, help someone feel welcome and increase the likelihood of them reaching back out to you. Even with people you have “known” for years, by inviting them to a coffee or online chat, you can learn more about what they do. Most people love talking about their key projects. Then, take things a step further and connect them to someone else you know who might be a good contact for them. When you’re new, proactively introducing yourself helps you learn about the organization, who is expert at what, and where there might be opportunities to engage.
  • Be intentional about diversifying. Especially with remote and hybrid work situations (which have already become permanent in many workplaces) you will need to be more proactive to nurture connections beyond your immediate team. The Microsoft researchers suggest inviting visitors from other groups to meetings and brainstorming sessions to get new perspectives. As a manager, maintain one-on-one meetings with team members and schedule time to catch up with peers.
  • Follow-up to collaborate. To make the most of your interactions, jot down notes afterward so you can follow up on offers you made, resources your colleague might provide or to revisit items discussed. By reaching out and reaching back you can nurture collaborative relationships that may be helpful next week or next year.
  • Conduct better meetings. With many meetings continuing to involve a combination of people joining on-site and virtually, the Microsoft researchers suggest greater use of facilitators and moderators to advocate for those not physically present and integrate everyone into the conversation. You may also want to explore structured check-ins at the start of gathering with something as simple as asking everyone to share one win from the prior week, something fun they did in their downtime or a new skill they want to learn. This kind of “small talk” can help build new connections and is often lost in virtual settings.
The more time we spend apart, the more we need personal connection. In the short run, you are likely to have a better day. In the long run, you will build a better career.

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