Making friends at work can mean our jobs are much more enjoyable, yet it isn’t always easy. Here, The Honest Boss gets real with a woman who still feels like an outsider at the office.
I’ve been at my current job for two years and haven’t really made any friends – and it really bothers me. I don’t drink, so after-work drinks are off the cards, but since the pandemic, I’ve felt more cut off from the social side. Even the day-to-day office chat. It’s not that I don’t get on with my colleagues – everything stays on a pleasant, professional level – I’ve just not crossed over into that proper work pal territory, and I wonder if I’m missing out or whether I’d enjoy my job more if I had a work bestie. I’m also nervous about asking people to hang out outside the office but I’d love to make more connections. Is there another way I should approach this, or am I overthinking it?
I sympathise enormously with your dilemma as I found myself in a similar situation at the beginning of my career. I had finally landed my dream job in what turned out to be an extremely friendly and sociable office. Everyone was keen to party at a moment’s notice. My problem was that, while everyone was likeable and often went to the pub after work, I decided I simply didn’t fit in.
I listened in on the (sometimes outrageous) office banter and felt inadequate, riddled with shyness and insecurities. Having only recently arrived in the city, and living with my partner, my life seemed boring and ‘settled’ compared to my colleagues, who regularly shared raucous tales of boyfriends, flatmates and late-night shenanigans. I was invited to office parties but usually made my excuses or left after one drink. I deliberately nurtured my ‘outsider’ persona – and had no one to call my friend at work.
Then, around two years later (the same length of time that you’ve been at your company) something strange happened. One night I said yes to after-work drinks and found myself staying until closing time. I hadn’t planned to, but I ended up properly enjoying myself and having a laugh with my colleagues. I can admit now that it wasn’t anyone else who had suddenly transformed – I was the one who was changing. I was the one who had been putting up barriers and self-sabotaging my chances of friendship at the office. I had never been judged; I had been totally accepted for who I was. In fact, it was me who was guilty of the judgy attitude. My newfound workmates were simply waiting for me to let them in.
I look back at myself during those days and remember how awkward and unconfident I felt about my appearance – my clothes, hair and make-up felt totally wrong compared to my colleagues who seemed so glamorous yet natural in their style. Somehow, probably because they didn’t force themselves on me, I gradually learned to lighten up. I became more relaxed and made an effort to fit in a bit more. I offered to get coffee for others and to tag along to group lunches. There were also regular tennis and football games on offer – and I joined in.
In essence, I had become more at ease with myself and even a (sometimes) participant in the office banter. I barely noticed the transition but gradually those around me moved from being colleagues to proper friends. To this day, many years later, I am incredibly close to some of those people. They turned out to be the most fantastically loyal, fun and supportive people you could ever meet and have been there for me at key stages of my life ever since.
The reason I am sharing this story with you is that I have a hunch that you are behaving in a similar way to me back then and inadvertently holding yourself back. You sound as though you have chosen to keep your distance a little bit. If you want something to happen, instead of waiting for everyone else to change, try to focus on what you can do.
I’d urge you to rethink your dismissal of the pub. It’s absolutely socially normal not to drink these days – the trend in non-drinking has been growing for some time now and there is a plethora of non-alcoholic drinks on every pub menu. The trick is not to make a fuss about it. Even if you are not a fan of pub life, it’s good to recognise it as a low-pressure environment for getting to know colleagues on a social level. Next time there’s an opportunity, just try going for a couple of hours. You could also suggest getting something to eat afterwards. In addition, you can start asking people to join you for lunch at local cafes. Even walking out to buy lunch with a colleague to eat at your desk can turn into a social occasion.
The pandemic, and subsequent remote working, has certainly stalled a lot of office socialising and you may be seeing one another less frequently with fewer opportunities for spontaneous entertainment. What you need to remember is that most people will be similarly feeling their way through this evolving world of work, with exactly the same trepidations around feeling isolated and cut off as you might have.
As the cliche goes, you will only get out what you put in. Making friends is not that different to dating – a smidgin of effort is required. Listen out for others who enjoy the same things as you, be it sports or theatre, and be proactive about signing up or booking tickets. It’s fine to be nervous but if you’re genuinely interested in deepening your relationships with colleagues, then you need to send out the right signals by showing some enthusiasm.
Work-based friendships can be among the most rewarding in life. The chances are, because you work in the same environment, you already have a lot in common with each other and probably share similar backgrounds, as well as education and interests. Your instincts are completely right about enjoying your job more if you had more friends. Now you just need to take charge of your own destiny and start joining in.