I can’t tell you how many people I have worked with over the years whom I have never met in person.

And just like working in an office, some of them remained at the “Just circling back on this email!” level, while others grew into the “How has your son been doing since the divorce?” level.

I experienced this natural evolution recently. I first met Hana through a prior work arrangement; she was a client of my former employer’s. From our first video call--her in Spain, I in the Western U.S.--I knew I had met a kindred spirit. After I parted ways with my firm, Hana and I maintained our weekly video calls, getting to know each other better from afar, mostly by talking about anything and everything. Both aspiring writers, we swapped personal essays. She asked me to do some writing for SupportBee, and I agreed. Soon, we promised each other, we would meet in person. I looked at plane tickets to Spain, and she considered attending a conference in San Francisco. Then, the pandemic hit.

Hana and I, the only way we've ever seen each other

Things got busier for me, as I was homeschooling a young, high-risk child while working, and she was isolated in her apartment, looking at the same four walls every single day. The inability to do much of anything meant we had no new life updates for each other. All dreams were on hold indefinitely. As the month progressed, we became so emotionally drained by such an unexpected global crisis that it took all we had to simply keep true to our weekly video call. And while I had lost motivation for almost everything else, I hadn’t lost my drive to produce good work for Hana--and I attribute that to the friendship we had built prior to...everything. In a way, working with her--even through a pixelated experience--has made me feel less alone during one of the most isolating times of my life.

While our situation was different than the typical cubicle soulmate/work wife/see-you-as-much-as-my-own-family scenario, all of this had me wondering--what happens to workplace friendships when they go from the office to the Zoom screen, particularly out of circumstance, and not by choice? And what role does established rapport play in the shift to strictly virtual relationships? While a 21st-century pandemic of this scale is unprecedented (and therefore no such research yet exists), perhaps there’s something we can learn from adjacent data that will help us understand what tele-relationships need to thrive.

You’re Not Alone (Well, Kind Of)

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that the trend towards remote work (pre-pandemic) was birthing a “loneliness epidemic"--a position likely based on research around the effect of office friendships on workplace culture. Employees who say they have strong relationships with co-workers tend to be more productive, more engaged, and generally more satisfied with their jobs. For years, Silicon Valley startups lured talent with the promise of after-work happy hours and other team-building events. But now that the physical water cooler has been reduced to a digital image of a water cooler, prioritizing culture and peer relationships is crucial.

A more recent study from the Academy of Management observed and surveyed workers at a company with a co-located and remote structure. The findings confirmed two things: Sigal Barsade, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies emotions in the workplace and contributed to this project, says yes--loneliness does impact the quality of our work. Loneliness emerges because the process of establishing friendships with colleagues is stifled once telework has a presence--a Gallup survey showed that only 15% of remote workers felt they had friends at work. (In-office rapport is so powerful that one-third of romantic relationships start at work!)

Buffer’s 2019 “State of Remote Work” report, which looked exclusively at all-remote companies, revealed that while employees considered a flexible schedule and the ability to work from home to be a pro, the cons were just as significant. The most common complaint was that working remotely made it difficult for them to unplug at work. (I recently heard someone say, “I don’t work from home, I live at work.”) In second place was loneliness, and third place went to communication issues.

Feel the Love...From Way Over There

As opposed to an in-office situation, remote setups elongate the getting-to-know-you process. We miss out on opportunities to “read” people via a constant feed of intonations, facial expressions, and impromptu conversations. As one psychologist explains, ”Online communication, similar to everyone’s Instagram ‘best life’ profile, presents an idealized view of the person you’ve set your trackpad on, and there are subtle details missed.”

The Academy of Management researchers concluded that the best way to address such a barrier is to create an environment where employees can establish a “cadence” with one another. A cadence sets expectations around when and how employees interact--getting to know each person’s typical response times, job roles, email style, and even their affinities and dislikes (what sign-offs really irk them?). To do this, co-workers must communicate with each other outside an as-needed basis. (At SupportBee, we exercise together virtually with a trainer.) In addition to paving the way for cadence-building, managers should also signal answers to the questions most likely floating around employees’ heads, like, “Is it ok to be ‘friends’ with this colleague?” “How informal can we get on Slack?”

To keep employees connected beyond the internet, digital product design platform InVision hosts an annual off-site and smaller team offsites (though it was a video event this year).

CNBC recently reported on the ways that companies are fostering culture and peer relationships in the pandemic, a time when entire teams have found themselves working from home for the foreseeable future. While most everything is video-based, it’s important to get creative. General Assembly recreated the morning coffee break and the Gitlab team replicates happy hour. After they wrap the meeting, Gitlab employees with kids let their little ones speak with each other. Parents swap homeschooling and activity ideas for kids and establish a connection beyond deadlines. Basecamp, a SupportBee partner, has a Slack channel where employees can talk about anything but work.

Photo credit: Gitlab‌‌

Other tactics management should consider? Encouraging health and wellness and conducting regular check-ins with each employee to help workers feel heard. And if nothing else, it is true that nothing brings people together like a crisis; 20% of respondents in a Robert Half survey reported more substantial relationships with co-workers when lockdown was in full swing. And with significant fear (56%) about returning to close quarters too soon, the environment would likely be too tense to keep cubicle-oriented relationships growing right now.

With a vaccine for COVID-19 a year or more ahead of us, undoubtedly more business will share what works for them (and what doesn’t). In May, an Atlassian employee shared ideas for helping teams keep the cohesion alive based on what her company does. The tactics are divided into three categories: practical vs. just-for-fun; real-time vs. asynchronous; and one-hit-wonder vs. regularly scheduled activities. The ideas reflect what earlier research has advocated: offer a healthy blend of exercises that encourage bonding on a personal level by way of laughter or vulnerability, while also improving professional understanding of each other’s roles and work styles.

Back to Hana, the dear work friend I’ve never actually met in the flesh. Even though we video conference at least once a week, I wonder if it will be strange when I see her in person--the same way we pause, for a moment, after staring at a photograph, only to look up and realize the small details that make a person who they are have eluded us throughout our study. I’ve had friends express concerns about growing apart from their most beloved colleagues, as remote work seems likely for the rest of 2021. Yet, it is this kind of nervous anticipation that saves me at my loneliest moments at work. One day I will hear what my co-workers’ laughs sound like when they travel through the air, instead of a microphone, thousands of miles away.