Your bosses want you to make more friends at work.

Bonding with colleagues has become harder and less of a priority for many people in the new world of work—and some employers worry that is harming company culture and operations. Offices remain half-empty and millions of people have switched to new jobs in the past two years. Meanwhile, many employees say they want sharper boundaries between their jobs and personal lives, adding to what many bosses say is deepening disconnection at work. 

Enter the corporate Friend Squad. Digital Turbine, an Austin, Texas, mobile tech company, is whisking employees to retreats with costume parties. Others are staging baking contests and bingo games. And many are going the more digital route, turning to a growing field of workplace social platforms, such as Facebook’s Workplace, chat-forum provider Wisq, and Glue, which also organizes virtual employee events.

“We’ve been working in this appointment-based meeting style and finding time on Zoom calendars and don’t actually connect,” says Digital Turbine President Matt Gillis, whose company has grown to more than 850 employees around the world from 175 employees three years ago. Most work on hybrid schedules. “We’ve lost all the interpersonal stuff, the ‘Hey are you going to see Taylor Swift tonight,’’ which actually makes it easier to work with someone.”

Digital Turbine hosted a festive gathering at a resort outside Austin, Texas, for employees to get acquainted.DIGITAL TURBINE; NATHAN SPOTZ

Last month, Digital Turbine executives flew 200 of its further-flung employees to an Austin-area resort so they could eat barbecue and dance with local co-workers in between workshops and meetings. Senior director Abigail Levine messaged attendees via Slack with an offer to crimp hair for the ’80s-themed party. London-based sales vice president Mark Slade dressed up as English rocker Adam Ant.

The get-together wasn’t without mishaps. One employee had to be rushed to the emergency room after he slipped while breakdancing. (“Those are bonds that you would never get if you were doing everything online,” says Slade, who accompanied the co-worker to the E.R.)

There’s a real business risk in the fraying of social relationships at work. Gallup, which has surveyed people for years on their workplace friendships, has consistently found having a “best friend” at work is closely tied to the likelihood workers will recommend their employers, their intent to quit, and their overall job satisfaction—a link that’s grown stronger since the pandemic. Work is a major conduit for forging friendships, especially for 20-somethings, who, on average, spend more time with co-workers than anyone else, according to the Labor Department’s annual American Time Use Survey. 

Office friendships have taken a hit in recent years. In a Gallup poll of 4,000 hybrid workers last summer, 17% said they had a best friend at work, down from 22% who said they did in 2019.

“Work really is a team sport,” says Constance N. Hadley, an organizational psychologist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “If you don’t feel any connection, work becomes less meaningful.”

Digital Turbine hosted a Texas-themed gathering for more than 200 employees, most of whom had never met.MATT GILLIS; ANGELINE TUCKER

Fair Isaac, the consumer-credit company behind the widely used FICO score, recently began using Wisq to pair employees for virtual coffee chats and join groups. The 3,400-staff company hired more than 1,000 people between 2020 and 2022 and few had since met their hiring manager in person, says Rich Deal, its chief human resources officer. 

“There was a relationship disconnect,” he says of the decline he saw in workforce engagement metrics among staff around that time. “A glass of wine over Zoom worked over the pandemic, or the Zoom pizza party were fine ideas but they didn’t connect us enough,” he says. 

The Wisq app asks employees about their hobbies and interests, setting them up in virtual conversation groups such as Dogs vs. Cats, Swifties, and LGBTQ+. FICO leaders worried about mixing too-personal topics with work, Deal says. “But the predictable bad things you’d be worried about haven’t materialized.”

Cost-cutting has crimped some employee-bonding efforts. Software giant Salesforce recently cut ties to a 75-acre wellness retreat, known as the Trailblazer Ranch, that it had partnered with early last year to give employees training and communal getaway activities such as hiking and yoga. “We learned a lot from our experiment with Trailblazer Ranch,” a company spokeswoman said, adding that it would bring those lessons to its offices worldwide.

Some employees find such company-organized efforts to be a burden. Josh Mercadel, a 30-year-old statistician in Blythewood, S.C., juggling a postdoctoral fellowship with an 18-month-old at home, was asked by his supervisor to attend a “mandatory in-person planning retreat.” His emailed response: “How mandatory is mandatory?”

An indoor swing set once anchored PerformCB’s home office in Sarasota, Fla., functioning as a hub for collaborating and socializing. Then last year, the marketing technology firm closed that office, its 120 scattered employees went remote, and 30 new hires came aboard. To help recreate that swing-set camaraderie, it hired Glue, a service that pivoted from setting up surprise dates for consumers to organizing virtual events for employers.

PerformCB offers employees festive ways of gathering virtually.JULIE MARTIN

“It just makes you comfortable” with colleagues, says senior market research specialist Laura Sierra, who has signed up for a virtual holiday cookie-decorating competition, a mixology class, and a “yappy hour” for employees to show off their dogs on a Zoom call. 

Once in a while, though, a staffer will say, “I can’t do that, it’s so annoying,” says Ryan Hill, the company’s vibe manager (his real title).

And that’s OK, he adds. “You want to give people as much room as they want to buy in and as much room as they want to buy out.”