Work friends. Remember them? Those people you used to spend more time with than your . . . I can barely type the word . . . family?
Last week, an e-mail from a colleague stabbed me in the heart. “You’re starting to feel like an old friend from a city I used to live in,” he wrote.
I thought about how I used to know what he had every day for lunch. His takeout order was more familiar than what my own teenagers were eating. But I no longer know what’s up with his beard or his hypochondria, topics we used to cover with zeal, but seem weird to bring up on a call.
I’m not current with his kids’ tribulations, or what he and his wife are doing for the weekend. We used to crack up, but I can’t recall what had been so funny.
The pandemic has emptied downtown buildings and along the way done a number on office plants, gossip, and relationships, even with people you didn’t know you’d miss. Oh, guy I used to riff with at the microwave, what are you up to?
In “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the role proximity plays in relationships. “We don’t seek out friends,” he said. “We associate with the people who occupy the same small, physical spaces that we do.”
It’s a good bet he was not referring to Zoom squares. But that’s where we are. The only office I’ve seen since March is the one run by Steve Carell.
As conference rooms and cubicles recede ever further in memory, companies desperate to hang on to corporate culture have been reduced to gimmicks. HR managers are sending out e-mails like: “Bring your favorite mug to a Zoom coffee break!” Or: “Join us Tuesday for an at-home knitting circle!” And: “Get ready for our virtual campfire (no bug spray needed)!”
Standards for what counts as “interaction” have fallen so low that we’re looking back with nostalgia at the virtual office lunches of the early pandemic.
“Even the pizza zooms are tapering off,” said Jessica Weadock, a project manager at an IT services engineering firm in Lexington. “Maybe we’re feeling even more disconnected than we think.”
Weadock is a lively conversationalist, but when she calls colleagues now she’s saddened to realize she barely makes small talk. “I get right down to business.”
Her office has been working from home since March, she said, “but not that many people have called and said, ‘How are you doing?’”
But she hasn’t reached out, either. “I’m embarrassed. I’ve only called a handful.”
Pandemic shutdowns actually have strengthened some co-worker relationships, with former podmates texting all day long, a constant stream of communication, just like the old days.
But many aren’t doing that, and for them, reaching out to people they used to see every day feels like cold-calling.
Hey, it’s Beth, the person from the ladies’ room. Remember we laughed that time when I walked in on you crouched under the hand dryer, doing your hair? How are you?
Kate Adams, vice president of marketing at Drift, a revenue acceleration platform, said that the idea of calling a colleague to suggest an outdoor socially distanced get-together (when weather allows), or even just to chat, reminds her of “dating.”
“I feel like I’m really putting myself out there,” she said. “You hope they don’t think you’re a weirdo.”
Her company, which once prided itself on its lively office culture, is moving increasingly virtual, she said, and she wonders where she’ll make new friends.
“Two of the five people in my wedding were from work,” she said. “How am I going to fill that gap?”
Commuting can be time- and soul-sucking, and many people working from home are thrilled to gain control over hectic schedules. And some workplaces were never fun to begin with.
But if you’re lucky enough to still have a job, and to work with interesting and nice people, you know the pleasures of the workplace friend. They’re there waiting for you when you show up, no 18 scheduling e-mails needed. They care about the same trivial office politics you do. They don’t care how many times you visit the lobby shop to buy a lone malted ball. They always take your side.
Work friends know a different side of you than other people in your life, and that can feel good, said Shasta Nelson, author of “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.”
“They can truly ‘get’ our accomplishments in a way that our non-work friends can only hear about,” she said. “It can be argued that they uniquely see one of the most important aspects of who we are.”
Studies show that people who have friends at work make more loyal and engaged employees. In human resources circles, friendship is considered an important retention factor. But with uncertainty about when it will be safe to change out of our sweat pants, many firms are no longer even talking about “return dates.”
Is the work friend endangered? As I was writing this very piece, I got a foreboding text from a work friend who once enhanced the fabric of my days, but is now glimpsed only occasionally on Zoom.
“Today I realized I couldn’t remember the name of a colleague I used to say hello to daily,” he wrote.
Was it me?
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.