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I've stopped making friends at work

Alexandra Karplus   

I've stopped making friends at work
  • Alexandra Karplus credits office jobs in New York and Singapore for many of the friendships she's formed over the years.
  • Since she started working from home, her personal relationships with coworkers aren't as strong.

"I want to invite you guys over to my place for Thanksgiving," I told a few coworkers while enjoying a picnic at the Singapore Botanic Gardens back in 2008.

It had been a month since I moved from New York to Singapore, and I felt happily settled in my new life. I was 27, just married, and thrilled to start the next chapter of my life on the other side of the planet.

A welcoming group of colleagues from around the world — whose ages ranged from just out of college up to almost ready for retirement — had contributed to the easy transition. They gave me tips on how to sign up for phone plans, told me about neighborhoods to check out, taught me Singlish 101, and regularly invited me to join them for lunch, after-work drinks, and even a few picnics.

Additional friends and partners were often invited to tag along, and that afternoon, my husband — as well as one new colleague's fluffy husky — was sitting alongside me on the mat.

"How are we going to host Thanksgiving? We just moved into our apartment and don't even have plates or cutlery," my husband asked.

It was a good question. I hadn't considered logistics, nor had I ever hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. My British coworker Peter jumped in and said he'd be happy to have us over at his place. Everyone was excited to join in, although, with no other Americans in the group, it would be the first Thanksgiving for all of them.

On Thanksgiving day, I prepared stuffing and a few pumpkin pies in my new kitchen. Peter had Skyped his mom back in Guildford for a step-by-step tutorial on how to prepare a turkey, and it was in the oven when we arrived. The other guests showed up with more sides and bottles of wine. I left that night with a full belly and a whole new group of friends to be thankful for.

I've met some of my closest friends at work

Fast forward 16 years — plus two children and a new job — and I'm still happy in Singapore. Because the city has a large transient population, I've seen many friends and coworkers come and go — but even this has had benefits.

I've attended three weddings of past colleagues in Bali, one of which was for coworkers who had fallen in love at the office. I've made trips to visit my work friends in their new homes around the world. Those who travel back through Singapore make it a point to plan a get-together when they're in town — usually at their favorite hawker center to eat satay and chicken rice.

Work friendships started back in New York and are still going strong

These types of strong connections with colleagues didn't just start in Singapore. The best part about my first job out of college, when I was still living in Manhattan, was our weekly brainstorming meeting. The team manager would bring a brown paper bag filled with bagels, and we'd sit around a table coming up with new ways to improve the site's content. The website didn't last, but the friendships have. My bagel manager has even made it over to Singapore to say hi.

The next job in New York was the one that eventually transferred me to Singapore. We were publishing inflight magazines from a warehouse-like space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, before it was a trendy part of town. This was where another set of friends came into my life.

When the weather got cold, we would wander over to Jacques Torres Chocolate for hot cups of spicy cocoa. When we closed a monthly issue, my boss would treat the team to pizza at Grimaldi's. The pizza boss now lives nearby in Bangkok. He visits regularly, and my kids think of him as an uncle.

I'm questioning how friendships can grow when we work from home

The pandemic changed everything. At the time, I was producing magazines and web content for airlines. Global travel restrictions and lockdowns had a huge impact on the company, and eventually, management had to let go of the majority of our more than 30-person creative team.

I was lucky and grateful to still have a job. At that point in my career, I was the editorial director, and while I didn't make the final decisions, I was the messenger who told people they'd been laid off. It felt like I had betrayed friends, and it also led me to question why I had been loyal to that company for so many years.

In my current job as the lifestyle and culture editor for Business Insider in Singapore, we work almost entirely from home. We have a space in a WeWork, but we also have a remote-flexible work policy globally. New colleagues are given in-person training when they join the company, but the majority of our day-to-day communication happens online.

There's constant chatter throughout the workday on Slack — colleagues sharing articles, pointing out events, and praising each other's work. We even have a channel to share pictures of our cats.

But while I like my coworkers and have been in this job for more than a year, these relationships have not grown into friendships.

The benefits outweigh the downsides

Research shows I'm not alone.

In June 2022, the Survey Center on American Life surveyed 5,037 American adults about workplace relationships. More than half of those surveyed said they'd met a close friend through their work or a spouse's work.

Fast forward one year to a report on loneliness in the US, released in May 2023 by then-US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. In the report, Murthy said the number of close friendships had declined. Murthy connected this to technology, a factor that has led to a decline in face-to-face contact and is also what has enabled us to work from home.

"As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction," Murthy told the Associated Press in an interview last May.

Results from a June 2022 Gallup poll of 16,586 working adults highlighted the positive impact that friendship at work could have on business outcomes. But the poll also found that in the US, just two in 10 employees reported having a best friend at work.

There are benefits to working from home. As a mother, I have time to drop my kids off at school in the morning, as there's no commute. I find a little "me time" with a home yoga session over lunch. There's no one blasting music that's not my jam or stopping me for a meaningless 15-minute chat on the way to fill up coffee.

Between a mix of one-on-one catchups and team-wide Google Meets — none of which ever run longer than the pre-scheduled time slot — it's easy to follow what everyone is working on, and I rarely feel like my personal time is being encroached upon.

But friendships are much harder to make online, and none of my work relationships in this job have managed to cross the threshold into friendships.

Yes, we have a Slack channel to share pictures of our cats, but I haven't had the pleasure of meeting someone's dog by surprise at a team picnic. I haven't been introduced to any of my coworkers' friends or partners, nor has my husband met any of them. Back in the day, I even picked up some basic mah-jongg skills when an assistant editor invited the whole team over to her mother's apartment to celebrate Lunar New Year.

When Thanksgiving comes around this year, I'm not sure how my colleagues would react to an invitation to the feast. Maybe we can start off with a picnic.

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