Our co-workers have always been there to make mid-day coffee runs (well, pre-COVID), shit-talk bad bosses, or celebrate professional accomplishments. However, despite being the people with whom we share the majority of our waking hours, many of us have only referred to our co-workers as exactly that — co-workers. Most working adults tend to keep those they work with, regardless of how friendly they are, and their actual friends in two separate spaces of their brains. Throughout 2020, though, as our homes slowly melded into our offices and our work became a much more prominent fixture of our ever-shrinking lives, the previously important distinction between work acquaintance and close friend has all but disappeared.
One of the perks of being an adult is that you are able to choose your friends. They aren't just people who were born around the same time as you and were therefore thrust into the same classroom or college dorm as you; they also aren't the kids of your parents' best friends. Having autonomy after years of making friends from circumstance may be why so many of us have been reluctant to claim our co-workers as actual friends. We didn't get to pick them, we just happen to work side-by-side each day. While you might think that no longer being side-by-side IRL would make the bond between co-workers even less strong, many have experienced the opposite effect in 2020. That's what happened for Ro, who works in marketing and advertising. She says that COVID-19 restrictions have only strengthened her connections with her colleagues. "We are all wildly different," she shares. "People would probably not expect us to be friends, but we have formed some really special relationships. The limitations of the pandemic have made me appreciate their quirks and differences from myself even more."
In the past, when a work friend posed the requisite question "how's it going?" at the start of each day, you likely answered with a superficial "fine." During a time when literally no one is doing "fine," however, co-workers have finally been allowing themselves to get real with one another. It was this intense emotional rollercoaster of a year and the intimate glimpses into various co-workers' lives it has provided that caused a growing closeness for Ro and her work associates. "2020 has brought a lot more vulnerability into the mix," she explains. "When you're one-on-one staring a person in the face, headphones plugged in, without the distractions of the office around you, you really hear and see people. I've gotten to know more of my coworkers' struggles and fears and history and they've gotten to know mine. You get to meet their families and pets and roommates and in some cases are presented with their lack thereof. People have been answering the question, 'How are you?' really honestly." For Ro, those literal and figurative looks into people's non-work lives are what pushed a transition from work conversations to personal ones.
Barbara, who works in public relations, and Bri, who works at a tech startup, also experienced this phenomenon. Though Barbara was already friendly with her co-workers, the emotions of quarantine brought things to another level. "We realized how much we missed seeing each other in the office every day when COVID-19 hit in March. When life moved online, so did our daily interactions. We had regular mental health check-ins via Teams video calls and our text thread blew up," she says. Bri echoes the added closeness communicating through coronavirus has brought to her co-working relationships. "Slack video chats add a new layer of intimacy as opposed to just hopping on the phone for a quick question," she shares. "You often have genuine one-on-one conversations versus a quick pop by someone's desk in an open floor plan office."
So many of us have been unable to see our non-work friends in person this year and interacting with them outside of quick text or email exchanges often has to be planned ahead — Zoom happy hours, Zoom game nights, socially distanced park hangs. We've even seen this lead to the rise of what some have called "Zoom Fatigue." Because of all this, non-work relationships may have taken a backseat. Socializing with our co-workers, however, is built into our days. We have to communicate with them while we work, which has led some to no longer keep their co-workers at arm's length.
Megan, who also works in public relations, even found that because she was connecting so closely with her work friends during their daily five to eight hours on Google Meet, socializing didn't stop at 5 p.m. "It's easier to pick up on conversations that we left off during work hours than it is to fill my non-work friends in on what I need to talk about in my personal life," she explains. For example, Megan's co-workers knew that she and her husband had been planning a honeymoon to France in March 2021, so when France closed its borders, she turned to them for support. "I was devastated. It had just come to a point where I felt we couldn't plan anything and we were sort of stalled in life. Rather than call a close friend and fill them in on everything to explain how upset I was, I naturally turned to WhatsApp to vent to my co-workers." she shares. "It's come to a point where I confide in them about the most personal of things while we are not working, and I'm honestly so thankful for the friendships we have formed. COVID has been a really hard, wild ride, but the friendships that have come out of it give me a small reason to see the good in the horror."
Throughout the emotional ups-and-downs of 2020, Megan says her co-workers became her best friends. "We shared our engagement goals, postponed wedding plans, family health crises in COVID, and I even shared my wedding day with them. In fact, my two co-workers were the only two people I invited to tune into a live link of my Las Vegas elopement." Megan isn't the only one who had her co-workers stand-in roles that were previously occupied by family or lifelong friends. Ro took on the role of caregiver for a colleague who had surgery and no family members in the area to pick them up and take them home, and Barbara took a summer vacation with her co-workers. "We planned a trip together to reunite," she explains. "Since we're lucky enough to be able to work from home, we each quarantined for two weeks ahead of the trip and traveled together to a beach town in Rhode Island for about a week. We spent most of our time outdoors, either at the beach or on the deck of our Airbnb rental."
Just like in the before-times, there are still levels of closeness among co-workers, but for some, even those casual work friendships seem to be becoming more intimate. While Bri has regular video calls with those she's tightest with in the now-virtual office, she's also been connecting with work acquaintances in a new way. "With other coworkers that I'm more distant with, I've noticed an uptick in our casual communications, like responding to Instagram stories more often or sharing brief little anecdotes in meetings," she explains.
While those of us who have been working from home are constantly connecting with our co-workers via Slack, Zoom, or even social media, there is another group of workers that have been bonding on a whole other level. Essential workers around the country are still going into work, and for many of them, their co-workers are the only people they're able to see because of strict safety protocols. That means more time socializing outside of work hours because it's the only option.
When the initial lockdown was announced in March, Lili was given the choice to furlough herself from her retail management job or continue to work. She chose to stay on, along with a handful of her employees. This group slowly morphed into Lili's social pod. "At first, we'd get ice cream or boba tea after work and chat. Then it progressed to getting dinner and even hanging out on days off," she explains. Like so many essential workers, Lili has been isolated from those she doesn't work with, including her parents who are over 70. This has only intensified the bond she's built with her co-workers. Though being apart from her family and non-work friends has been difficult, she's grateful to have been able to get to know her employees on a deeper level. "Humans are generally social creatures, and I know I need a certain amount of social interaction to keep myself sane," she explains. "On top of that, my employees are pretty freakin' cool, and I don't think I would have hung out with them as much if it hadn't been for quarantine."
Virginia, too, went into work at her job as a costume designer for the film and television industry during the pandemic. She was supposed to be in Atlanta for a project starting in March. It, of course, got shut down and then eventually relocated to Toronto in July. Due to the border being closed as well as intense on-set testing protocols, she was not able to travel home to Boston during filming. She was isolated and working with pretty much all new people. Because Virginia and her assistant designer were both from the U.S. and had no family or friends in Toronto, they decided to share a house for the 16 weeks they were working there. Emotionally speaking, this helped them both out immensely. "Yes, this means we have spent a lot of time together but being able to share living space with another person, cooking in the same space — it meant the difference between depression and homesickness," she explains.
Even though Virginia has been able to virtually connect with family and friends back home, they are not able to offer the same level of support as someone who is sharing this very specific and intense experience. "I have been FaceTiming with my family and friends, but I don't feel like they can fully understand the risks I've been taking to do my job. Having someone who I know is truly in the same bubble has made all the difference." Perhaps that energy of being in it together is the one thing worth carrying over into our post-pandemic lives, at work and beyond.