I've stopped making friends at work

"I want to invite you guys over to my place for Thanksgiving," I told a few of my 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 contentedly settled into my new life. I was 27, newly married, and enthusiastic about starting the next chapter of my life on the other side of the planet. A welcoming group of colleagues from around the world — their ages spanning from fresh out of college to almost retiring — had made the transition easy. They provided tips on signing up for phone plans, suggested neighborhoods to explore, taught me the basics of Singlish, and often invited me to join them for lunch, after-work drinks, and even a few picnics. Additional friends and partners were often encouraged to join, and that afternoon, my husband — as well as a new colleague's fluffy husky — was seated next to 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 valid question. Logistics hadn't crossed my mind, nor had I ever hosted a Thanksgiving dinner before. My British coworker Peter quickly offered to host at his place, much to everyone's excitement. For most of them, it would be their first Thanksgiving, as there were no other Americans in the group.

On Thanksgiving day, I whipped up stuffing and a few pumpkin pies in my new kitchen. Peter had gotten a step-by-step turkey preparation tutorial from his mom via Skype. The turkey was in the oven when we arrived, and other guests brought additional sides and bottles of wine. That night, I left 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 — and now with two children and a new job — and I'm still happy in Singapore. Due to the city's large transient population, I've seen many friends and coworkers come and go, yet even this has had its benefits. I've attended three weddings of past colleagues in Bali, one of which was for coworkers who fell in love at the office. I've traveled to visit work friends in their new homes around the world. Those traveling back through Singapore make it a point to plan a get-together, often at their favorite hawker center, indulging in satay and chicken rice.

These types of strong connections with colleagues didn't just start in Singapore. The best part about my first job out of college in Manhattan was our weekly brainstorming meeting. The team manager would bring a bag of bagels, and we'd brainstorm ways to improve the site's content. The website didn't last, but the friendships did. My former manager has even come to Singapore to visit.

The next job in New York eventually transferred me to Singapore. We published inflight magazines from a warehouse-like space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, before it became trendy. Here, another set of friends entered my life. When it got cold, we'd head to Jacques Torres Chocolate Factory for spicy cocoa. When we closed an issue, the boss treated us to pizza at Grimaldi's. That boss now lives in Bangkok and visits regularly; my kids think of him as an uncle.

The pandemic changed everything. At the time, I was producing magazines and web content for airlines. Due to global travel restrictions and lockdowns, the company eventually had to lay off the majority of our 30-person creative team. I felt lucky and grateful to still have a job. However, as the editorial director, I was the messenger delivering layoff news to colleagues, which felt like a betrayal. It led me to question my loyalty to that company.

Now, as the lifestyle and culture editor for Business Insider in Singapore, we work almost entirely from home. Although we have a WeWork space, most of our communication happens online. There's regular chatter on Slack, with colleagues sharing articles, announcing events, and praising each other's work. We even share cat pictures. 

But despite liking my coworkers and having been in this job for over a year, these relationships haven't evolved into friendships. Research supports this experience. A survey from June 2022 by the Survey Center on American Life found that more than half of the 5,037 American adults surveyed met a close friend through work. Yet a year later, a report on loneliness by then-US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy highlighted a decline in close friendships due to technology, which has reduced face-to-face interactions. 

There are benefits to working from home, especially for balancing family life. I can drop my kids off at school, enjoy a home yoga session, and avoid unwelcome distractions. Google Meets are efficient and rarely encroach on personal time. However, forming friendships online is difficult. I miss spontaneous interactions like meeting coworkers' pets or attending team picnics. 

When Thanksgiving comes around this year, I'm not sure how colleagues would react to an invitation. Perhaps starting with a picnic could be a good idea.  

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