Careers

“I miss my work mates so badly”: the women who want their office buddies back

Feeling bereft without the company of your work friends? You are not alone. We asked women to tell us what they miss most about their work mates and what you can do to keep the friendships alive when working from home. 

Therapeutic chats as the kettle boiled, nabbing free snacks from the boardroom and deconstructing the weird tone of your boss’s latest email. The office was once a place where we off-set stupidly early starts and stressful assignments with people we called friends first, colleagues second. Yet back in spring, the coronavirus pandemic turned these hubs of activity into ghost towns, when the first national lockdown saw nearly half of the UK working from home.

On paper, cracking on from home was a pretty straightforward request for many; it just took a laptop, an internet connection and somewhere to sit (or maybe lie). But of course, there is more to our working lives than the job itself, and replicating the positive feelings of being surrounded by our workmates hasn’t been easy. Research suggests that 46% of workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown, with women more impacted than men. Nearly three-quarters of young workers reported feeling the strain of Covid-related isolation.

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Amy Ho, 27, works in finance, and counts herself as one of those ‘miss my work friends’ people. A self-described “chatterbox”, she’s only been back to her open plan Leeds office twice since March.

“Working in a high-pressured industry like finance, it’s comforting to be around people who are also dealing with heavy workloads,” Amy tells Stylist. “I miss taking a quick break to visit someone’s desk, or standing in the kitchen with other dog owners discussing their latest mischief!”

“We worked around the corner from an Italian cafe that made the most amazing pastries, so people were always bringing boxes of treats back,” she adds. “We also did monthly bake offs. I won the first time I entered, with a pineapple sponge cake – it tasted better than it sounds!”

Amy has created a schedule to mimic her original working patterns; she gets up early to walk her dog, exercise and shower all before 9am. The social elements, however, are still missing.

Lauren Evans, 31, works in Sussex in the pharmaceuticals industry, and desperately misses the two women she calls her ‘work wives’.

“I named us that because Britta, Hollie and I spend more time awake with each other than with our partners.”

Lauren has a seven-year-old son, and is somewhat grateful to currently be based at home, “I spend far less on childcare and it’s much easier to pop a load of washing on now!”, she says. “But it’s been difficult adapting to daily life without friends. It was the simple things; sharing links to silly online purchases or dashing to Pret for lunch. Together, we made our days so much more enjoyable. We still WhatsApp everyday and have video call drinks, but it’s just not the same.”

For Amy, their office bake off now happens digitally, with the team sending in photos of their creations. “It’s a nice idea,” she says, “but there is no real gratification in that. The community element was what made it special.”

Dr Marisa G Franco is a psychologist and friendship expert.

“Life is very different for many of us now, and a lot of our workplace interactions have moved online,” she tells Stylist. “But the more we expect it to be the same, the more we are going to be disenchanted.”

“Happy workplace friendships are directly related to most positive outcomes bosses are hoping for, including creativity, productivity, engagement and retention. The very happiest people are those who are socially connected,” she adds.

Gemma Cole, 28, lives in Gateshead. Over the course of three years working at a radio station she became best friends with three colleagues.

“We were incredibly close. At 3pm I’d often hit a wall and get a bit delirious, so I’d sidle up to Ellie on my swivel chair and try and distract her for 10 minutes. If we had an evening event, it was so fun finishing up a bit early, having a little prosecco at my desk, and then joining all the girls in the loo to get ready together.”

When Gemma got a new job at a TV station, she was thrilled, and her colleagues were fully supportive. Then Covid threw a curve ball.

“My first day was the first official day of lockdown! I spent nearly five months working at home.”

Everyone made a big effort to welcome her, and she met a few colleagues online. Even still, she felt incredibly lonely. “I’m an extrovert, and felt quite stifled at home. The novelty of lie-ins and wearing gym leggings wore off quickly. I love office environments; not just the people and chatter, but the opportunity for hands-on training and learning.”

“Life is very different for many of us now, and a lot of our workplace interactions have moved online,” she tells me. “But the more we expect it to be the same, the more we are going to be disenchanted.”

“Happy workplace friendships are directly related to most positive outcomes bosses are hoping for, including creativity, productivity, engagement and retention. The very happiest people are those who are socially connected,” she adds.

Akesha Reed, 29, lives in London. Before lockdown, she was the digital editor of a hairdressing magazine.

When the first lockdown was announced, her company trialled having four members of staff in for two days a week, but it was scrapped after a month and everybody stayed home. Despite being able to skip her 90-minute commute, Akesha found it “horrible working without everyone.”

“All 20 of us were similar ages and no one had kids. I was the only Black woman in the team, but they never made me feel othered. Every October we travelled the country together for our exhibition cycle, so we were incredibly close. We’d play 90s playlists on Friday afternoons, and opened our Secret Santa gifts around a big table together. If we guessed who had given us our present, we got an extra day’s holiday. I guessed right one year, and you better believe I took that extra day!”

“We were like a little family; there were tears and tantrums but we were so close-knit.”

There are ways to keep your friendships alive even if you aren't together every day

Dr Franco tells me that multiplexity is crucial to develop colleagues into real friends. “You have to re-pot your friendship,” she explains. “In other words, you need to get to know them across multiple settings.”

This is something Amy, Lauren, Gemma and Akesha all did.

“My first day at the office, it was a girl called Georgia’s birthday,” Akesha tells me, “She was kind enough to invite me to her meal that night. She’s now one of my closest friends; she’s had dinner with my parents, and we went to Amsterdam for a weekend break. I also bonded with a colleague called Charlotte; I ran the Instagram account and she would help me come up with puns for the captions. Now we podcast called Your Mum together.”

With friendship groups fragmented and most interactions taking place online, Dr Franco insists that vulnerability holds the key.

“The two key ingredients to promote friendships are continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability. The workplace lends itself perfectly to the first, as you see your colleagues most days. However, the professionalism that many workplaces expect actively dissuades the second element – a willingness to share and be yourself. As such, we risk having very one dimensional work relationships.”

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For those of us missing our work friends, or struggling to make new connections, Dr Franco suggests her IDEA model; it stands for Initiate, Disclose, Expose and Affirm.

“Initiate that first contact, then disclose yourself; be vulnerable. So how about a video call where instead of just chatting, you show your colleagues around your house, or an item that is special to you?” 

She urges women to think of “anything that allows you to be authentically you” – be that having a Zoom call with fellow dog owners, trying an online book club or having virtual work drinks. 

“Exposure means seeing each other regularly, so put a standing meeting in your calendar (this will also make it more likely to happen!) Finally, affirmation your connection; share compliments, and words of kindness. Tell them how much you miss them.”

Dr Franco admits this might sound scary, but says that “humans automatically assume people like us far less than they actually do. We have to be willing to try; we can’t rely on chance meetings by the kettle anymore.”

Gemma is settling into her new team well: “It’s a really supportive workplace; I have a good rapport with a lot of my new colleagues now.”

She’s in touch with her ex-colleagues often, and holds fond memories of her pre-Covid working environment. “We didn’t judge if one of us needed a little moan, or hesitate to offer help, and we’d give each other a boost on low confidence days; we were a proper support system. But I also miss it being a random Wednesday and being able to look across the desk and ask “pint?”. Those were the days!”

“There were so many times in that office when I would genuinely cry with laughter. I was very lucky.”

Images: Getty

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