5 Strategies for Building Relationships with Coworkers In the Era of Remote Work

UPDATED: February 6, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2024
Young remote worker smiling and waving in a video call while she is building relationships with coworkers virtually

The days of making a mid-morning coffee run with colleagues or heading out to the pub across the street for happy hour with your coworkers seem like ancient history. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you see one or two colleagues in person once a week, because most office interactions take place over video calls. Which begs the question: Is building friendships with coworkers still relevant if you only see them virtually? 

The short answer? Yes. Studies show having a best friend at work continues to be a key driver of employee engagement and job satisfaction. However, according to a Gallup poll, only 37% of employees felt they had a best friend at work in 2022, compared with 42% in 2019.

“We have lost these feelings that we matter to our colleagues and to our boss when we’re not seeing people in person,” says Erica Keswin, author of Bring Your Human to Work and The Retention Revolution. The result isn’t just a lack of friends at work, but also an absence of empathy toward our colleagues. We tend to give each other more grace when we’ve spent time together and we are open about our personal lives and the challenges we face, Keswin says. 

But how do you make friends working from home when you rarely spend time together in the office? 

Building relationships with coworkers virtually

Rather than trying to develop a deep friendship with one or two coworkers, like many employees did before COVID-19, you might consider creating friendly relationships with a variety of colleagues, says Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ, a New York City consulting firm focused on developing corporate leaders and teams. “[For the] foreseeable future, we are not returning to an office community,” she says. Indeed, the national office vacancy rate was 18.2% in November 2023, according to real estate software firm Commercial Edge. “I think we have to start thinking… ‘What does the workplace of 2024 and 2025 look like? And how has that changed what we actually need from each other?’” Halpern says.

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Here are five strategies for building relationships with coworkers virtually in today’s current office environment— which is more focused on remote work and hybrid schedules than in-office work. 

1. Offer to help

“The best way to make a friend at work is to ask how you can help them,” says Anna Goldfarb, author of Modern Friendship: How to Nurture Our Most Valued Connections. Reach out to a colleague through email or chat, and say, “‘I’m noticing what you’re working on. I want to help; what can I help you with?’” Goldfarb suggests. “That is a great connection starting point, and most people would be thrilled to have someone offer help.” 

The key to a strong friendship is having a compelling reason to spend time together. At work that could mean offering to share resources, attending network events together or even taking a class together, Goldfarb explains.

2. Believe you have something of value to give

According to Goldfarb, when we work remotely, we worry that an email or phone call will interrupt or bother our colleagues, so instead of reaching out, we talk ourselves out of making a connection.. One way to minimize the uncertainty of approaching a coworker is to be upfront about how much time you’re asking for and what you’re interested in talking about. Telling your colleague whether you’re interested in having a 15-minute phone call or a five-minute video call makes it easier for your coworker to say yes. You’re offering them the gift of attention and camaraderie, and that can be very powerful because working from home can be very lonely, Goldfarb says.

3. Be more intentional

Halpern suggests another way to make friends as a remote worker is to be more intentional during video meetings. For instance, nodding your head when people are speaking shows you are listening. When it’s your turn to speak, try to use your colleagues’ names. Halpern suggests saying, “I want to build on what Bob said, or, Susan makes a good point.” Halpern explains that people rarely use colleagues’ names and people love to hear their name. 

4. Connect over common interests

More companies are establishing employee resource groups that bring together like-minded people. For instance, your company might have an ERG for parents, veterans or employees who identify as LGBTQ+. Keswin suggests finding a group that resonates with you and going to a meeting, even if it’s virtual. You might make a connection with someone at the meeting and find out they are in the office the same days as you, and then you can grab coffee or lunch with them.

Many companies also have Slack channels that are geared towards employees’ hobbies and interests, such as hiking, biking or pets. Be active on the channels that interest you, and look for opportunities to make natural connections with your coworkers. “Find the sweet spot between technology and connection,” Keswin says.

5. Engage in small talk

When you go into the office, walk around to see who is there. If someone is in the kitchen getting a cup of coffee, take 30 seconds to chat with them. “It doesn’t matter what you talk about,” Halpern says. It’s just important to have a conversation, because small talk establishes a relationship between two people and makes our interactions feel less transactional.

Keswin suggests meeting colleagues who live nearby, going out for lunch or coffee near your homes rather than waiting until you’re both in the office… If you have the opportunity to work on a collaborative project with coworkers, be fully present when you’re together. Don’t multitask or spend time on your phone.

“You almost need to examine your own willingness to be vulnerable, because if you say, ‘You know what? I want to make connections with people,’ trust really is the foundation… of relationships,” Keswin says.

Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.com