Are remote work BFFs built to last?

Professional relationships are a key source of our motivation and support in the workplace. So, what happens when we aren’t working in the same physical environment as our team members? Many employers are ordering teams to return to the offices, citing the need for comradery. Yet, many of the drivers behind productive, happy employees aren’t tied to sitting in the office together. 

In fact, according to new research, workers in hybrid work environments are just as likely to have real friends at work as those who see their colleagues at work every day. Plus out of over 1,000 remote, hybrid, and in-person survey respondents, workers in hybrid environments are more likely to socialize outside the workplace, know what is going on in their coworkers’ lives and be comfortable sharing information about their own lives compared to those who see their coworkers in person every day. 

With remote workers significantly more likely to have daily check-ins with their team (25% do), and on-site workers significantly more likely to say they never have live meetings with their team (22% never have them), it may seem ironic initially – but being more in sync working apart is reshaping the future of workplace communication.

Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University Stern School of Business, Julianna Pillemer examines the complex dynamics of interpersonal connections at work through her research. 

“We’re in this new world, and we’re still all figuring it out, but I think what we’re learning is that what we thought was true about needing to be physically in person together, isn’t the way the world’s going to be,” says Pillemer. 

While understanding how friendships are formed in this new world of work can be challenging, it’s important to consider the way leaders manage stratified teams. 

“We know from research over time that positive relationships at work or relationships that feel really energizing are really critical…for our wellbeing, for our satisfaction, engagement at work and turnover,” she says. 

The share of Americans overall who worked remotely at least some of the time was in the single digits pre-pandemic. Currently, it’s at about 45 percent now, according to Work From Home Research.

So how can leaders create an environment that allows people to connect more deeply if they’re primarily remote or hybrid?

Employees learn behavioral cues from their managers — and they often need leaders to offer them the “green light” to develop connections at work. The same rings true for remote and hybrid teams. 

“One thing we all experienced with the pandemic was this blurring of boundaries between your work persona and your home persona, literally where we’re zooming with people and we’re seeing their living room and their pets are coming into the picture and their kids are coming into the picture,” recalls Pillemer. 

These accidental personal learning experiences have opened up doorways to conversations, commonalities, and shared interests between coworkers – often spurring organic friendships that weren’t probable pre-pandemic. 

While managers are tasked with finding new, innovative ways to forge connections regardless of where their team members are physically located, Pillemer says it’s important to not force mandatory activities. Usually, this approach backfires. In fact, some of her qualitative work has demonstrated that ineffective management styles can directly hinder an individual or entire team’s productivity at work.  

“One thing that we’ve found…is that trying to force [interactions] through a Zoom happy hour or enforced socializing virtually has not been helpful, most people do not like that. They don’t feel like it genuinely fosters relationships,” Pillemer explains. 

Instead, she suggests managers take a more indirect approach, fostering spaces where people can have the room to organically “bump into each other” virtually. 

“Whether it’s in Slack groups or connecting about common interests or spaces that allow for serendipitous gathering, being open to virtual gathering spaces is one thing my research has shown. Using exercise platforms like Peloton or other places where you don’t have to be physically co-located all the time, but you can still have a shared interest that you’re talking about that you feel like you’re doing together… those things can help to foster and maintain relationships as well,” suggests Pillemer.  

Since forced socializing doesn’t sit well with (basically any) employees, leaders can also try to get creative and solicit guidance and real time feedback from their teams. Maybe forming a corporate athletic club, or organizing monthly volunteer team meetups at local organizations would spark interest and reinforce team building. 

Make your “in-office” time together count. 

Some companies that have adopted hybrid policies are making the most of their face time. Others are missing the mark. 

“Have people come in on the same days each week…and that way it’s not just everyone sitting alone at their desk,” explains Pillemer. “You use that time to foster those group dynamics and the culture that really is what’s missing.” 

For example, everyone who can feasibly be in the office on Mondays and Tuesdays can come together on those designated days, rather than staggering employees and defeating the purpose of a return to the office. 

“You can also do planned offsites where everyone comes together, does some kind of team bonding thing and then disperses and does the remote or hybrid thing,” says Pillemer. 

The pervasive productivity problem. 

Increasingly, there’s a real mismatch between company culture clashing with employee preference. According to a June 2022 Gallup study of 8,090 remote-capable US employees, 60% want a long-term hybrid arrangement. However, according to a September 2022 Microsoft survey of 20,006 global knowledge workers, many managers still have issues trusting remote employees. In fact, 85% of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it hard to be confident that employees are being productive. And while 87% of workers report they’re performing just fine, only 12% of employers say they have full confidence their team is productive. 

“Certainly, studies are showing that productivity increases versus decreases when we’re remote,” says Pillemer. “That’s something researchers have been studying far before the pandemic, 10, 15 years ago…There aren’t really big reasons why we need to be in person all the time to do our work, it doesn’t make us more productive. It might not even infringe on our relationships, so it’s going to have to be something that leaders take into consideration moving forward.”

The disconnect between bosses, teams and the remote reality has been called ‘productivity paranoia’: the idea that even if workers are putting in the hours, bosses won’t believe it if they don’t physically see them in the office. Experts agree that successful managers and leaders will overcome the association between hard work and hours chained to an office desk – if they want to retain top talent.

“I think right now it’s sort of this personal choice, but if the best employees are going to want to have workplace flexibility to be hybrid and remote as part of their job demands, I think leaders are going to have to listen,” says Pillemer.

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remote work BFF on facetime
Are remote work BFFs built to last?

Photo from Annie Spratt

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