Fewer Americans have work friends. Here’s how co-workers can bond.

Fewer Americans have work friends. Here’s how co-workers can bond.

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In a loneliness epidemic, work friends are more important than ever. But fewer Americans report having those connections, which has unhealthy implications for human—and company—health.

WorkTango analyzed Gallup polling data and other research to identify factors contributing to fewer personal connections among co-workers and ways people can forge stronger ties at work.

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy shared an 81-page report declaring American loneliness an epidemic, with health implications similar to those from smoking 15 cigarettes a day and costing billions of dollars in health care each year. The report revealed that social isolation increases a person’s risk of premature death by nearly 30%, and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, dementia, depression, and other conditions.

The average American adult spends one-third of their life working. Work has become the place where we’re most likely to make friends, and positive relationships with our co-workers are essential to our mental and physiological need for socialization. Research shows that connections with acquaintances, such as those developed at work, are just as important to life satisfaction as close relationships among family and friends.

But for all its import, work relationships are waning. Keep reading to learn more about why—and how the issue can be mitigated.

Fewer people feel someone at work cares for them. Data from Gallup.

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The feeling of mutual care in the workplace is dwindling

Just 38% of Americans in February 2024 said they felt like someone at work cared about them, according to Gallup’s survey data. That was down nearly 10 percentage points from January 2020. What’s more, about a third of respondents to an American Psychological Association survey said they feel lonely when they’re working.

Americans have been disconnecting from each other for decades as people move homes and jobs more frequently, and as technology changes the way people interact with each other. Lockdowns and quarantines during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this social isolation—especially at work.

The pandemic spurred a major shift toward remote work. Now, nearly a third of those whose jobs can be done off-site work entirely remotely, while more than half work partially in-person and partially remote. This shift made it more challenging for many people to forge friendships with co-workers and deprioritized these friendships for many people.

In remote or hybrid work settings, bonding may not come as naturally without casual in-office mingling. Indeed, Gallup data shows that younger workers, in particular, are trailing behind 2020 levels of feeling cared for at work, among other engagement measures.

Younger people are also more likely to change jobs more frequently, which resets the clock on workplace friendships. Following the Great Resignation—the period of heightened quit levels across the country in 2021 and 2022—many of those who started new jobs or whose favorite co-workers quit likely have yet to develop meaningful relationships among their new colleagues.

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How to build better relationships at work

In addition to combating loneliness and its health risks, feeling cared for at work helps give people a sense of belonging to their workplace—and they’re likely to stick around longer. Close friendships among co-workers can actually boost productivity in the workplace, as best friend/co-worker duos tend to display better communication, commitment, and encouragement.

Experts recommend several ways to make deeper connections at work. At first, it’s more effective to bond with one or two co-workers rather than all of them at once. Those initial friendships can bridge later ones, easing the social burden of introductions over time.

These relationships can start small, with virtual or in-person coffee chats or striking up a conversation over a shared interest. Even without knowledge of a colleague’s outside life, a compliment on their recent work or an offer to collaborate on a project can be one method to break the ice. When possible, have these conversations in person or via video chat—either of which is more humanizing than a text or email.

Many solutions for connection center around the individuals involved, but about two-thirds of white-collar employees believe employers are responsible for addressing workplace loneliness, according to an October 2023 survey from Benenson Strategy Group.

Gallup research suggests that managers of remote workers should have at least one meaningful conversation with each employee weekly. Just 15 minutes of face time can help employees maintain rapport. Hosting cross-trainings, cross-functional workshops, and company-wide committees and activities can also provide employees with opportunities to get to know people outside their immediate team, which could spark new friendships.

Employers can also implement buddy systems, particularly for new hires. For more veteran employees, work-related or mentorship-focused buddy programs can help them get to know people they may not interact with much or become more dedicated to building deeper relationships with those whom they see often. A “buddy” colleague for a new hire can help acclimate them to workplace culture while also helping them identify people with whom they may get along well. Importantly, employers should allot for buddies to meet a couple of times a month to sustain their momentum.

Ultimately, fostering collaboration and communication within the workplace is key to making people feel safe befriending their colleagues.

Written by Paxtyn Merten. Story editing by Nicole Caldwell. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.