This week I found myself at the wedding of Nancy and Michael, two friends of mine who met at work. Finding your partner at your workplace isn’t uncommon - almost a quarter of all married couples met as colleagues. Whether it’s marriage - or just friendship - we spend so much time at work that our jobs have always been a source of meaningful connections. Colleagues have seen us happy, sad or have just been willing to listen when we vent about our frustrating bosses.
But there’s a real prospect that this source of intimate support might be about to disappear with the hybrid working era. In its most recent workforce survey, Gallup found that just 17 per cent of hybrid workers reported having a best friend at work, the lowest level that it’s ever been. The key predictor of whether someone is engaged with their job is whether they have a friend there. This means we’re moving to a world where we’re spending fortysomething hours a week doing something from which we feel a disconnected. The role of work in our lives is evolving in a way that is set to make society lonelier.
Our jobs are becoming less reminiscent of our school days and more like the university experience. Whether we enjoyed our time at school or not, the collective camaraderie of it leaves a lifelong impression on us. A sense that we’re all in it together, that we’re surrounded by friends.
Most of us will look back at our time at school and remember the laughter, even if it was shared with our small gang of outcasts. Neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott reminds us that while we associate laughter with humour and jokes, “when we laugh with people, we’re hardly ever actually laughing at jokes… we’re laughing to show that we like them.” Laughter is a sign of connection, and when we associate it with our schooldays it tells us something.
Work has traditionally played a role like that of school. While we were toiling to earn enough money to survive, most of us will admit that the laughter we shared with colleagues helped pass the longest, dullest days.
But the age of working from home means work is shifting from a school-style community to something closer to college. At university, students do their work at the library or from their room. But it’s the role work plays in our social lives that is the main change - most students don’t find their best friends on their course. Sure, they might know people who study the same subject as them, but their BFFs are generally found elsewhere.
For those who don’t have friends at work, our jobs can be desperately lonely. The poet David Whyte says the power of friendship is to be understood by another person: it is the ‘privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of having been granted the sight of the essence of another.’ A working week without feeling understood by colleagues feels isolating and never-ending.
While work transitioning from a school-shaped place in our lives might be to some extent a positive change - after all it’s not healthy for our occupations to be our dominant identities, a transition to a detached university-style way of working could end up leaving us unfulfilled and restless. Having a best friend at work was what made our jobs a source of joy for many of us. For all the benefits of hybrid working, losing our BFFs is a sorry change.
So we must ensure that the time we spend in the office is time that leaves scope for chatting, connection and downtime, as much as staring blankly at PowerPoint slides. By one estimation it takes 100 hours to make a friend. To feel understood by someone is a commitment, but a commitment that most of us feel is richly rewarding.
Back at the colleagues’ wedding, as we toasted the happy couple, among friends who hadn’t seen each in other months (sometimes years) there was a constant refrain of ‘It’s so good to see you, we must do this more often!’ That’s something we can all agree on – connecting with friends is an effort that yields a joyful return.