It Has Never Been Harder, or More Essential, to Have a Work Best Friend

Katherine Tester, a management consultant based in Minneapolis, began her role in 2021 when her entire company was working remotely. "People often say it becomes harder to make friends as you get older—and then, with the pandemic, it was like Boom!" the 39-year-old shares. During a Zoom conference call, Tester felt an immediate connection with Abbie Stuckey, a 33-year-old account manager. "I just knew I liked her," Tester remembers. Their casual side conversations during client meetings quickly evolved into private texts and frequent video calls. "Our supposed 30-minute meetings turned into, ‘I’m just going to grab a glass of wine and I’ll be right back,’” Stuckey recounts. Their friendship made them feel more engaged at work and more understood at home, especially since both were juggling full-time jobs and young children during an abnormal time. Eventually, during an in-person company gathering over drinks, Tester took Stuckey’s hand and proposed: “Abbie, will you be my real friend outside of work?” Stuckey accepted.

Nowadays, the importance of having a best friend at work is a hot topic. On social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, the hashtag “#workbestie” is gaining popularity. Gallup’s research repeatedly indicates that employees with close friends at work are more invested and productive in their roles. However, the new reality of hybrid work makes forming these bonds more challenging. A 2022 Gallup survey of nearly 4,000 hybrid workers revealed that only 17% claimed to have a work best friend, down from 22% in 2019. This decline has negatively impacted employee morale, particularly among younger workers who are eager to bring their whole selves to work. According to a recent cover story in Briefings Magazine by Korn Ferry, a management consulting firm, fostering friendships at work is among the toughest challenges for corporate leaders. As anyone who has been in a small-talk-free Zoom meeting knows, the modern workplace feels more isolated and perplexing. Alongside usual concerns about status, purpose, and productivity, there is now more uncertainty, transience, and anxiety about AI. In this environment, a trustworthy connection developed over Zoom, Slack, or Microsoft Teams can seem like a remedy. Although finding such a bond is now more difficult, these new "context agnostic" relationships are more powerful and necessary than previous in-person work friendships.  

Lauren Mechling, left, and Rachel Dodes. PHOTO: KATJA HENTSCHEL
We speak from experience. When we met, back when we both worked at this very newspaper, we were friends the way office friends used to be. We traded water-cooler banter and ventured into the wilds of Midtown Manhattan for chopped salads. We then moved on to other jobs, got laid off from those jobs, reconnected, and commiserated about our missteps over yet more chopped salads.
Even though we no longer shared a workplace, something was refreshing about being able to confide in each other about the micro-dramas of our professional lives, featuring a cast of characters we both already knew. Instead of watching each other’s eyes glaze over, like when we shared these gripes and gossips with our spouses—these stories were, after all, about people they had never met—we each felt seen. We were able to trade advice tailored to the personalities of those involved. This, we realized, is what makes a true work best friend singular: They innately understand the intricacies of our daily trials in a way that outsiders, even partners, simply cannot.
When the pandemic had us stuck at home and seeking escape, we decided to write a novel together. Yet most of our partnership had little to do with writing. There were phone calls to work out plot points and character arcs, but also texts and Zooms in which we talked about awkward moments with neighbors and struggles with our now former agents. When it came time to submit our work to publishers, we held each others’ hands—virtually—through myriad backhanded compliments and rejections.
What this process taught us is that the best work friendships rise above mere venting about colleagues. An ideal work best friend helps you thrive by delivering honest assessments of how you come across on the job. We often had to level with each other about the best way to manage feedback on our manuscript. Sitting around complaining wasn’t going to improve anything.
“The best friendships that are work-centric are with those people who are ‘for us.’ And being ‘for’ one another often involves constructive feedback,” says Gwen Romans, an executive coach in Bend, Ore., whose clients work for law firms and tech companies such as Microsoft and Google.
Given the vulnerability involved in this kind of candor, Romans stresses the importance of taking things slow. “If people have leadership aspirations, I think unfortunately we have to be a little guarded,” she says. Having seen how screenshots of ill-considered jokes can lead to disciplinary action, Romans advises clients to take a beat before they write something snarky to a new work friend on Slack or email.
Juliana Pinto McKeen, 35, learned that moving too hastily can cause other problems. She says she “bonded quickly” with a staff member while she was an intern at a social service agency [WHERE?] in 2019. When the staffer began texting constantly, McKeen felt overwhelmed but uneasy pulling back and was relieved when her internship wrapped up the following spring.
Experts say that the best work friends have comparable power and aren’t in direct competition. If they report to a different boss or are on a different team, it can be easier to trust that the feedback is unbiased. Colleagues with different skills can also bring a fresh perspective to a project.
Zach Minot and Danette Lee in a screen image of a video call.
Take Zach Minot, 43, and Danette Lee, 33, who met in 2021 when Lee joined Brightfield, a New York-based software company. As director of presales, Lee needed a better grasp of the product, so she reached out to Minot, the VP of product management. Although they were on different teams and coasts, they found they had similar styles of working and began communicating on Zoom and Slack daily. “It was very easy to identify her as a person who gets the right work done the right way,” says Minot.
As their friendship grew, so did their trust. “Zach is a very logical person, and I would probably say I’m a lot more fired up and emotional,” says Lee. Whenever she’s “fired up,” she has Minot read her drafted emails before she sends them. Minot, meanwhile, says he runs all of his PowerPoint decks by Lee because she knows how to talk about the product conversationally.
Sensing worker bonhomie is good for business, companies are now trying to foster friendships by planning events and creating cozy office lounges. Company karaoke parties may feel forced, but the potential payoff is considerable. When people are close with their co-workers, “they can get more done in less time, they’re more likely to share innovative ideas,” says Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief workplace scientist. Romans says that while her clients are initially skeptical of these “forced family fun” events, they usually emerge feeling more loyal to their company and more excited to go to work.
For all the talk of work-life boundaries, work is still often so much more than a way to make a living. It is where we spend most of our time and often where we meet people with similar interests. Even after the rupture of the pandemic, which forced a reckoning with the role we want work to play in our lives, we can’t help seeking meaning from how we spend so many hours of our days. With a work best friend, it is easier to fulfill these very human desires for purpose and pleasure, regardless of the job at hand.

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