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Research has shown that when employees have friends at work they are better performers, more engaged, and happier with their jobs. However, thanks in large part to technology, how we relate to our coworkers is changing in two important ways. First, we are less likely to live close to our coworkers. This means that we may not have the opportunity for in-person, informal shared experiences (e.g., going to happy hours, running into each other at the “water cooler”) as well as organizationally sponsored shared experiences (company outings/dinners). Second, we increasingly rely on technology to communicate with our colleagues. Interacting through media like text message, instant message, and FaceTime makes it harder to get a sense of who someone is. We can’t assess body language and other non-linguistic cues in the same way we can in-person. When we work via technology, it is also more likely that we will only communicate with our virtual coworkers when we have a reason to — such as for a shared task. Given these fundamental differences in how we relate when working virtually, how do remote colleagues become friends?
To investigate this, we engaged in an 18-month study of the Midwest division of a global technology corporation, “Cloudly” (a pseudonym). We conducted 114 interviews with 64 different people (we interviewed some people 3+ times). The people we interviewed worked remotely at least 50% of the time, with many working remotely 75-100% of the time. We also spent more than 75 hours observing how Cloudly employees interacted with each other when they happened to be together in-person.
We found that remote workers often experienced virtuality as “a barrier” to forming friendships with their colleagues. To overcome this barrier, they had to establish what we termed cadence. Remote workers feel like they have cadence with a coworker when they understand who that person is and can predict how they will interact with them. Cadence is especially important when we work virtually because it helps us anticipate when we will interact with our virtual coworkers and how those interactions will go, things that are much easier to do when communicating face-to-face. When we don’t have cadence with our coworkers, we might find it difficult to get in contact with them or find it frustrating to interact with them when we do.
So how, exactly, did the people in our study develop a cadence that ultimately became a friendship? First, they began with specific assessments of whether and how they might develop a work-related cadence, such as:
- Does my colleague respond in an expected time frame?
- Do they have relevant skills that I might rely on to do my own work?
- Do I like working with and communicating with him/her?
If the answer was “no” to any of the above, we noticed that people only interacted when they were required to for work-related reasons. If the answer was “yes,” we saw people take steps to build a richer relationship, by doing things like looking the colleague up on LinkedIn to see their picture and background or asking others who have interacted with them for more information about the colleague (e.g., how they work, their communication preferences).
For some people, the groundwork laid by work-related cadence naturally progressed to a friendship-related cadence. However, just as working near people in an office doesn’t always lead to becoming friends, many people in our study made a separate set of friendship-related assessments, such as:
- Do we “click”?
- Does my coworker have time to be friends?
- Does being friends with my coworker hurt my work in any way?
If members of Cloudly felt that they could establish a friendship-related cadence with their colleague, they would take the risk of initiating a friendship. They would do things to connect with them for reasons other than just work, like becoming Facebook friends, reaching out for support after an illness or diagnosis of an illness, or swapping stories of weekend plans.
Tips for Developing Cadence
Ultimately, if you are looking to make friends when working virtually, it will require being proactive and taking chances. We don’t recommend trying to analyze “cadence” in the academic way we did; but you can help foster it by being a reliable work partner and responding in a timely manner to remote coworkers; this will lay the foundation. Then, take a leap when you sense friendship potential: reach out to the coworker to share something a little more personal or to tell them a funny story. In our experience, small actions like these can unlock a rich friendship.
If you’re a manager, set the stage for your employees to get to know each other. Start every call with something that helps team members learn about each other. For example, one manager in our study had employees share a “song of the week” with their teammates that they had enjoyed listening to in the past week and another had people do “about me” presentations on a team call. When hosting a team meeting via a conference line, open the line 10 minutes early and leave it open for 10 minutes after the call ends so that team members can chat if they want to.
Managers can also create opportunities for employees to meet in-person and take full advantage of these opportunities. When people travel to various sites, have them reach out to the people they work with. One manager in our study had her employees hold “office hours” whenever they travelled to a company office, a practice she cited as very effective for building relationships. Structure a relationship-building opportunity early in every in-person meeting because it’s awkward to see people again after a long break. Include an unstructured opportunity later in the meeting when people have gotten over their awkwardness.
While building cadence may seem like a lot of work, it is essential because virtual workers are more likely to feel isolated from their organization and each other; cadence helps them foster relationships that will make them feel more connected, like coworker friendship. More generally, learning how to build cadence may also be essential for societal well-being, as former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently cited the changing nature of work as a primary precipitator of our current “loneliness epidemic.”