Can Remote Coworkers Be Friends?

Updated: Feb 4

With the rise in remote work, coworkers are socializing less. That poses a problem, because having meaningful relationships in the office leads to both personal happiness and professional success.

With the United States opening up again, most businesses have returned to normal operation. But normal is different now. Tons of companies are going hybrid or fully remote now that it’s been proven to work, and because people prefer it.


But while WFH is convenient and cost-effective, it comes with one unfortunate externality.

I’m, of course, referring to the decline of the water cooler industry. With everyone at home, coworkers aren’t hanging out and chatting about sports, movies, and what everyone did over the weekend. Coolers be damned.



(image via Pew Research)


While businesses are saving on H2O, they may be making up for it in lost productivity.

It isn’t necessarily that remote work is itself less productive — that debate is still ongoing. Rather, there’s good evidence to suggest that employees are better off when they spend more time around one another.


According to Gallup: “Even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day to 10%. And each additional hour of social time — up to about six hours — improves the odds of having a good day.” According to Gallup’s definition, “social time” includes time spent at the office. The collaboration that occurs in a workplace — and the casual small talk that fills the gaps in between — is beneficial to well-being.


Video conferencing is social, but let’s face it: it’s hardly any fun. There is, or at least there hasn’t yet been, an effective substitute for face-to-face interaction. The result is that coworkers are connecting in less meaningful ways.


Perhaps that seems like a small price to pay for the freedom a virtual-first world provides. But, bonding with coworkers is not some tangential, unimportant part of our work lives. Making real, lasting connections can be all the difference between happiness and success or apathy and failure. A decade ago, Gallup surveyed 15 million people around the world. Among other things, they asked whether respondents had a “best friend” at work. 30% said yes (interestingly, the number is much lower among Americans):


Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.


Close, personal relationships at work vastly improve your chances at career success. They even make you less vulnerable to injury! (There’s a whole other domain of research demonstrating why.)

Are we losing something too important by leaving the office behind?


Just ask new hires.


Historically, the kind of personal attention you get at a new job makes all the difference. Around half of new hires quit within 18 months (over 15% within the first three), but companies can boost their retention over 80%, and productivity 70%, just by making the new folks feel more included. That’s been difficult lately, though, because there’s only so much that can be done over video chat.


Poor onboarding is a business cost, but it’s felt hardest by the hires themselves. A nonprofit founder who works with young people entering the workforce told CNBC how, in 2021, “it’s much more difficult to establish close and strong connections. [. . .] That’s the sort of social capital that money can’t buy.”


All this isn’t to say that WFH is bad. The benefits — especially to certain groups like working parents — are simply too great.


But, we should also fight harder for the survival of the water cooler. The relaxing, the bonding, the friendships that make work a more pleasurable and productive experience.


The way forward in this regard is to pursue innovative ways of sparking that human combustion at the heart of any great idea. A virtual water cooler may look quite different than we expect, but it must create the same age-old delight of truly getting to know someone.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All