Work Friendships are the Deepest Bonds We Form. But the Pandemic Has Taken Them Away

Social Commentary

Work Friendships are the Deepest Bonds We Form. But the Pandemic Has Taken Them Away

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Early one morning two years ago, I walked into the garden that led to our small start-up office to discover a colleague repeatedly slapping the bark of a tree. Much to my relief, he wasn’t having the eventual mental breakdown we were all warned about when we turned 18, but instead trying to source breakfast.

The hapless owner of a Mercedes Benz, who had parked in the building, watched on from the fourth floor. Ignoring his calls to “ruk pagal”, my colleague carried on undeterred, informing me with a chuckle that he hadn’t been successful… Yet.

An hour had gone by — during which the rest of us discussed in detail what we did in the few hours we were apart the previous night — when our colleague returned, slightly bruised, but with an arm full of mangoes.

They say you shouldn’t allow colleagues to turn into family, but that evening, as we all sat in the garden, eating chaat with our recently-acquired haul of fruit, it was hard to not see the similarities with the average family dinner table.

Our half-domestic, half-feral office cat — we loved him, he didn’t love us back — ran around the garden looking for scraps, while two of our most brilliant co-workers  discussed the recently released Half-Girlfriend.

Another colleague was grilled about a Tinder date gone wrong, much to their dismay, but to the delight of everyone around them. A third conversation was getting unnecessarily political for 7:30 pm… Basically it had all the hallmarks of a typical family get-together.

A close group of friends at work can increase fulfillment, productivity, and even loyalty to the company.

And sure, some colleagues just go to a shop to buy mangoes, and most probably don’t raise fiercely independent tomcats together. But, with some variations, most working professionals in the country have probably had an equally relatable experience.

Why work friendships are important

Over the years, it’s been established that work friendships are — as much as we like to deny it — some of the firmest bonds we’ll ever make. This makes sense, considering that we spend about 40-50 hours at work together (ad agency? Double that), which is a hell of a lot more than we spend with the friends we grew up with, or our families for that matter.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic handing out free unprecedented times, like an inexplicably negative Oprah, the tide has turned, and the much-coveted “work-friendship” is slowly looking like another casualty on a long list.

In the last four months, offices across the country have been closed, with many now looking to completely adopt the work-from-home lifestyle. And while being three feet away from your bed at any given time does have its benefits, some focus, inevitably, has shifted to all the disadvantages as well.

If my story of the charming tree-slapping gentleman wasn’t enough to convince you, recent research conducted in many parts of the world confirms that the biggest disadvantage of this lifestyle is losing out on work friends. These studies argue that a close group of friends at work can increase fulfillment, productivity, and even loyalty to the company. And yes, this list includes that one Dheeraj guy you saw one afternoon and never again, as well.

Instead, as the pandemic is hell-bent on proving, loneliness is at an all-time high, which in turn is affecting both professional and personal well-being — in ways that make even having access to your own toilet at all hours of the day, just not worth it anymore.

The consequences of losing a close friend have been discussed in detail, but the consequences of losing out on the convenience of having people around to talk to, while keeping up with the drudgery, has so far been a far less explored phenomenon.

That’s slowly changing. One writer in Vox, (the Christopher Columbus of workplace friendships, if you will) found the challenge so unbearable that they coped with it by making dozens of friends on a Slack group instead.

Loneliness is at an all-time high, which in turn is affecting both professional and personal well-being.

Work friendships are “low-effort, high-reward”

Of course, it isn’t just colleagues we directly interact with all day that we’ll miss most, considering most of us are still communicating from home. But it’s also the simple act of being forced to go to an office every day that throws up the opportunity for several ancillary friendships to blossom. Friendships that previously seemed rather unlikely.

At another office, which we shared with a jewellery company, we saw this in action. A group of people with nothing in common, apart from their shared belief in capitalism, were made to spend hours together every day.

We were never the best of friends. In fact, the jewellery employees were probably more scandalised than anything by how many cigarettes a group of twenty-something “media people” could power through. But one mention of Rajkummar Rao, and suddenly everyone’s slapping everyone else’s back like we’d all grown up together.

These interactions were, as The Atlantic refers to them, “low-effort, high-reward friendships.” Relationships which, as The Atlantic goes on to regretfully inform us, are becoming much rarer, and in turn, compounding stress levels.

And it isn’t just co-workers that you like, who you’ll end up sorely missing. As CNBC points out, surrounding yourself with people who you aren’t necessarily tight with, but share a common goal with, is also immensely beneficial.

After all, at most workplaces, you meet intelligent, independent professionals, with unique perspectives, who probably won’t shy away from offering you a reality check when you need one most. These straight-shooters are invaluable to have around, especially when considering how easy it is to live in our bubbles, perfectly content with our competence.

The sad reality of the situation is that most of these work friendships are dying out, and even a vaccine can’t save them at this point. Companies that can afford to do so, have already embraced the work-from-home lifestyle, and Zoom calls are already replacing lunch-table banter. Sure we won’t have to bother about getting stuck in traffic every single day, but, if this continues, will it be worth it if there’s no one willing to slap trees for you?