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They call it “work” for a reason, right? We’re not there to have fun or to make friends.

And yet … when friendship does develop at work, that can be good for our soul. Good for our work too, as far as that’s concerned. That may be especially true for those who are newer at the world of work.

Maybe you saw this New York Times piece about the downside of remote work for young people. They’re missing a chance to establish the early-career relationships that have been so valuable for the rest of us.

They’re going to pay a price for that, and the rest of us might, too.

As Emma Goldberg writes, “Those early-career friendships have become something of an endangered species. For some young people, including those who work in industries like tech and law that have yet to fully return to the office, work life now means taking video calls from bed. They have yet to meet their co-workers in person — let alone form the relationships that feel most consequential at the start of a career.” 

Companies are trying mightily to make up for the missing time together in person. Virtual cocktail hours. Virtual trivia sessions. Virtual lunch—everybody plopped in front of their own laptop eating their own leftovers.

It’s just not the same, is it?

It can be lonely having all our conversations through screens.

And those casual moments in the break room, walking by someone’s desk, or waiting for the elevator … those don’t happen when we log into Zoom at the appointed time and begin our meeting.

Gallup reported years ago that organizations thrive when people can say, “I have a best friend at work.” As you might guess, far fewer of us say that since we took our laptops and went home in the spring of 2020.

There are all kinds of workplace friends, of course. Goldberg, who writes about the future of work, says they have one thing in common. They all support our growth – professional and personal.

“High school and college friends see each other through parties, family feuds, crushes, and coming-of-age. But work friends see each other through the world of ideas. And they can be easier to find early in a career.”

Unless we’re all sitting at home staring at a screen.

Goldberg’s article, The Magic of Your First Work Friends landed in my inbox thanks to one of my first work friends. Whit and I met when I rolled into Jackson, MS to start my new gig as a radio news anchor.

We shared a studio at the station out on the edge of town—it was not posh.

We shared a house, even less posh. Whit’s last roommate had just moved on to bigger and better things, and I was new to town, with no place to live. Perfect timing.

We also shared a deep interest in politics, Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, and that hot new show Saturday Night Live. Also, Combination # 5 at Shakey’s Pizza. (Listen, it wasn’t Chicago. Shakey’s is what passed for pizza in Mississippi in those days.)

These turned out to be fine foundations for a long friendship.

A radio station can’t get by on news alone; somebody has to go out there and sell it. Enter a new account executive, fresh from Florida. Whit and I both thought Joan was terrific. Only one of us wound up marrying her.

And there you are. Three friends instead of two, and still friends to this day. Those are the bonds that can form among first job friends.

Can those bonds develop when we don’t go into the office?

Maybe. Not easily though.

As the Times piece points out, what makes work friendships special is that we’re actually creating something together. A new app, a marketing plan, a newscast, whatever … we’re putting our heads together and producing something.

It makes sense, then, that so many people described a real sense of loss when they were going through that creative process alone on their laptops.

So now what?

We’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, are we? Remote work is here to stay, along with hybrid arrangements that have people going into the office only occasionally.

The advantages of working from home at least some of the time are clear and many of us are adamant about continuing to enjoy them. That seems to be especially true for younger workers—those most likely to be in their first professional position.

Maybe the solution is to make sure that our time in physical proximity to colleagues is as productive as it can be, in terms of social connection as well as the actual work we do.

When we are together in real life, we ought to make the most of it.

And as always, I’m curious how you’ll do that.