As a young person, entering full-time employment can feel daunting. After all, who would want to leave the loving embrace of cheesy pasta with friends every single night at university or the monotonous comfort of the school schedule? But when it comes time to go for the "big job," one of the things that makes it exciting (beyond the cold, hard cash) is the opportunity to meet new people.
Putting your learned skills into practice is all well and good but many of us grew up watching working worlds on TV — from The Bold Type to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Grey's Anatomy to The Office — and were looking forward to the day that work life would gift unto us new and cherished friendships. We're not talking about someone you would save a slice of Kevin from accountings' birthday cake for. No, we mean the type of work friends that you would actually text on weekends.
Post-pandemic hybrid working has turned this dream on its head. For the new generation of office workers who spend just a day or two a week IRL with their coworkers, the work bestie is now a relic of the old world. Though losing the friendship element of your job may seem like an insignificant detail in the seismic shift that is post-pandemic work, statistics suggest that work friendships are critical for long-term happiness. In a 2018 study from HR advisory and research firm Future Workplace, 70% of employees said that friends at work were the most crucial element of a happy working life.
By comparison, a recent survey from workplace events company Wildgoose suggests that post-pandemic employees are lonelier than ever, with 40% of respondents saying they lack real workplace friendships. Meanwhile, the 2022 State of Remote Work survey from Buffer in partnership with Nomad List and Remote OK found that 52% of global employees feel less connected to their coworkers since the shift to remote working. While there are plenty of factors that can contribute to feelings of isolation at work, the report states that one in 20 employees who started a new job while working remotely have found it hard to make friends with their colleagues. With 67% of the Australian population now working from home at least part of the time, these problems pose potential issues.
Difficulty making friends will impact all hybrid workers but for those who have entered the workforce for the first time in recent years, the issue is particularly pertinent. According to Nicole*, a 23-year-old working in politics in London, establishing friendships at her first post-grad job was much harder than she expected. She puts this down to missing out on basic moments to build connections, like lunch breaks and in-person catch-ups. "Coming in as a new person to an office of 100+ people is hugely overwhelming in itself, and lacking the ability to build the natural friendships [my colleagues already] had was super difficult. It honestly made me feel like I didn’t really know the people I worked with — almost as if they weren’t real," she explains.
Nicole says she has now been able to build some relationships at work — although she stops short of calling them friendships — but the process feels entirely different from making friends at university or in the part-time jobs she held before. This is something that career coach JJ DiGeronimo, who specialises in career strategy for women, has noticed about the new working model. "Professional relationships are hard to come by when you spend more time in your home office than in a corporate setting," she explains. Though DiGeronimo has seen some of her clients find friendship success through after-hours online networking sessions, she recognises the difficulties that many are facing with the lack of real-world contact hours. "The shift in professionals connecting online will continue to evolve but people will still yearn for in-person connections."
Beyond the camaraderie and general happiness, office friendships can also lead to professional opportunities. Where previous generations might have benefited from after-work drinks with the boss, the new wave of workers may be finding that their lack of work friendships is impacting their career progression. "It does make me feel like I’m missing out," says Nicole. "Connections are vital to building your career and it can make me feel like I am at a significant disadvantage so early on."
DiGeronimo confirms this is a common complaint among new workers. "Getting the work and impact noticed is not always as easy in hybrid working models," she explains. Many of her clients have shared their frustrations with her: if a worker's only contact is with their boss on Zoom rather than in-person group meetings along with the general social environment of an office, that's a problem. "It is very difficult now for leaders to know what their [employees] are working on and why it matters."
Still, while some Gen Z employees feel like they lack connection with colleagues, other young office workers say they have actually seen an uplift in work social events in the hybrid working era. For more social industries, the dedication to spending time together outside work has been managed. This has been the case for 24-year-old building inspector Chloe*, who says that despite work social events being fewer, her connections with her colleagues are stronger. "We still have big nights out," she explains. "Working in property means work hard, party harder, and I think people make more of an effort now to attend, as it's not as regular as before."
On the flip side, government employee Lauren*, 24, has found social events harder to come by. "We are only in the office one day a week and despite it being a Friday, most folk are so exhausted from having to actually travel in that they're immediately wanting to leave after work and not wanting to go down to the bar for a beer," she says.
"Many of my colleagues worked together before hybrid working and it's clear they have a different sort of friendship than those that joined after," Lauren explains, noting how her colleagues often reference stories about meeting up outside work or are connected to each other on social media.
"I suppose there is more of a separation between work and home, but it does make work feel less fulfilling," she explains. "I don't really have the sort of emotional attachment to my colleagues that made previous jobs that were much worse, like hospitality, more bearable than my current job, even though it is much less stressful."
As with all office issues, there are ways to tackle it. "Many office workers I speak with have started Zooms off-hours for book clubs, discussion groups, and online hour, a form of happy hour," says DiGeronimo. "Professionals that I work with have also joined workout groups, hiking groups, and travel groups to get the camaraderie and teamwork that they miss from being in the workplace."
The success of communities like No More Lonely Friends exemplifies this. Twenty-three-year-old founder Marissa Meizz went viral on TikTok after she started a series of meet-ups for people experiencing loneliness and wanting to find friendships post-lockdown. Starting by organising a picnic for young people seeking friendship in New York, the website and app has now launched all around the U.S., with hopes to expand internationally.
But what about career progression being stunted by the lack of contact hours with colleagues? According to DiGeronimo, it's now more important than ever to vocalise your accomplishments as much as possible and make the face time you do have with colleagues count. "Make sure that you find ways to use your voice and share your work on weekly meetings, group calls, quarterly summaries, or another way you can [think of to] showcase your work," she suggests. If you feel like your progression is being seriously hindered then bring up the issue with your manager or, if the problem lies with them, put some time in with HR. We're all adjusting to hybrid life and it's possible that your boss hasn't yet clocked the implications of hybrid working for their employees' careers.
Important as it is for some people to find ways to make up for the friendship gap in the hybrid working era, the benefits of WFH appear to be more compelling, with many young people believing there’s more to gain from an arm's length approach to working.
"While it is sad not having meaningful work relationships, the money I'm saving by mostly working from home is allowing me to work more towards other financial goals," explains Lauren, adding that the hybrid working model improves her social life, too. "It allows me the flexibility to participate in evening classes and also spend more time with loved ones."
For Nicole, a lack of office friends only reiterates the importance of not seeing your career as your sole focus when it comes to building relationships. "Workplace friends and a support system is important, however I am a firm believer in separating my life from my work," she says. "As I find my footing within my career, I definitely value having my independence from my job and not letting it define everything I do."
Whether you have a desire to make friendships at the office or not, we can all learn something from this shift in perspective, no matter what age we are.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.