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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Help! How Do I Make Friends When My Coworkers Are Behind a Screen?

Dear OOO,

I love working remotely, but I feel more isolated than ever. How do I make friends with my coworkers? My company switched to remote work during the pandemic, and no one is in a hurry to go back to the office anytime soon. That means I get to work from home for a while yet, but with friends leaving and new people starting remotely, how do I reach out to them, or stay close to my current work friends?

–Evelyn

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You might think that the hardest part of starting a job—or even holding on to a job—while working remotely during a global pandemic is figuring out how to collaborate productively with your colleagues away from meeting rooms and drive-by brainstorming sessions that, let’s admit, no one really really likes. But what I miss the most is the unofficial communication: the smiles and gripes of my officemates; the people who pass by my desk to say "hi"; and that sense of camaraderie that makes the commute at least partially worthwhile. It sounds like you miss that too.

The fix is pretty easy. Well, easy for me to write, not necessarily easy to put into practice. I also started a job (the one I have now, actually, here at WIRED) during the pandemic, and the first steps were hard, but I’m glad to say I’ve made more friends in a year here than I could have ever imagined.

As long as we're working remotely behind screens, it will be tough for any of us to feel truly connected to each other. That’s true whether you started a job while everyone’s remote and haven’t had a chance to meet anyone in person, or you’ve been there for ages and your current work friends have left for new gigs. The only real solution is to do the thing everyone hates: put yourself out there and talk to people.

Ask them to hop into a video call with you just to chat about what you’re working on and what their interests are. Suggest a virtual coffee, or a virtual drink after work. (Or ice cream, for the folks who don’t drink. My pal Karen Ho, a sustainability reporter at Insider, taught me that one!) Make plans to hang out after a big project is finished, for example. And follow through! Book that 15 minute coffee break on their calendar so no one forgets, and be willing to move it if you (or they) aren’t feeling it today.

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Not every overture needs to come in the form of a calendar appointment. Join in threads in Slack or Discord when someone says something funny. When a coworker shares cat photos in Slack, share adorable photos of your own. Every company (trust me, every company) has Slack channels for jokes, memes, snack alerts, or just sharing stories and gossip. Dive in and share! It’ll feel awkward at first, but the more you do it, the more people will respond favorably to you and the more you’ll get a feel for what resonates with your colleagues and what doesn’t. Follow your coworkers on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok (if you feel safe doing so) and interact with them, gently, letting them know you appreciate their presence. Engage with them on a human level, not a coworker-trying-to-network level.

I know, actually opening up a bit and talking to people? Gross. I wish there were an easier answer, one that let me sit on my ass and let respect and validation come to me without having to actually be vulnerable or stumble through my awkward social anxiety. But a) we don’t always get what we want, and b) you’re asking a question that many of us have trouble answering even in the best of times, before “social distancing” was even a thing.

Sure, when we were all in proximity to each other, it was easy to swing by someone’s desk and say “Hey, let’s go grab a coffee” and just dish about what you’re working on or how awful the commute has been. But even that could be difficult. When you’re stuck at home, there’s no similar casual hangout, but just being in the office isn’t the solution, as tempting as it might be to think so.

In the early days of the pandemic, almost every company tried to offload the stress of staying connected with structure. You know, “planned fun,” like the kind my friend and colleague Megan Greenwell discussed in a previous column. The dream was that if the company handled the arrangements, you’d all come and socialize. Depending on your company, it may have worked—for a while. Eventually the after-work video hangouts stopped, the after-work parties faded away, and the “come hang in a video call while we all work” meetings fell off the calendar. That’s also natural. No one really likes planned fun, even if the people who plan it mean well. Everyone would rather just have that hour back on their schedules and let the fun happen organically.

That’s the problem though: The fun never happens organically when you’re all stuck behind screens. You have to make it happen, which means putting yourself out there and making yourself (and possibly someone else) slightly uncomfortable. And considering that remote work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it means there’ll be even more emphasis on you and me to take the first step, rather than rely on the social structures of office culture or those planned fun activities to do it for us. Reach out to your colleagues. Not all of them will reach back, and that’s fine, but some will, and those folks are the ones you’ll want to hang on to.

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