Building community in a new workplace can be a daunting task for a new professional. While coworker relationships don’t need to rival that of your closest friends and family, finding opportunities to make friends at work can be critical to our professional success and overall well-being. Evidence suggests that supportive staff relationships can increase job satisfaction and, in turn, boost sense of belonging for new professionals (Strayhorn, 2009), in addition to helping new professionals grapple with the culture shock of an unfamiliar environment (Collum, 2020). Studies on organizational health have found that being able to name a best friend at your job is a strong predictor of workplace engagement, warding off loneliness and disconnection (Hickman, 2018). And perhaps even counterintuitively, social psychology research has posited that casual friends and acquaintances can have as strong of an impact on our well-being as our inner circle of social connections (Granovetter, as cited in Mull, 2021).
The stakes surrounding workplace friendships for new professionals feel even higher in the context of the pandemic, where many staff working in a hybrid modality may not be getting the same level of casual interaction with coworkers as in pre-COVID times. These losses can lead to significant disadvantages for newcomers struggling to find their footing in the delicate social fabric of their environment, potentially impacting opportunities for advancement, professional development, and recognition (Mull, 2021). As new professionals, how can we change course from this harmful outcome and organically grow our networks in a new workplace setting? Here are some tips I’ve gathered both through personal experience and outside research:
Call on your supervisor for support with introductions.
Strayhorn (2009) described a supervisor’s role as one of a “socializing agent” who can facilitate intentional opportunities to bring new staff members into contact with other staff across functional areas (p. 51). These opportunities might come in the form of combined trainings for staff who share common goals or experiences, such as protecting student privacy or advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, or more informally as casual get-togethers across units. If your supervisor favors a hands-off approach, Collum (2020) suggested simply asking them for suggestions on who to meet with outside of your immediate team or asking to be paired with a mentor. As someone who’s been both a mentor and mentee for a staff mentoring program, I highly recommend these programs to expand your network and connect with those at your institution who are willing to share their vast institutional knowledge to help new employees. Connecting with other mentees can also be a valuable bonding experience, since newcomers will likely share similar questions, gripes, and highlights.
Make the effort to reach out first.
As a brand-new professional, I had a million reasons to justify why I shouldn’t reach out to other staff outside of my immediate team. These people are far too busy to chat with me, I thought. Besides, why would full-fledged adults want to be friends with a 23-year-old? I gave into my insecure self-talk every time because it was the easy choice compared to putting myself out there to establish connection with potential friends at work. For the fellow introverts who need a disciplined approach to hold yourselves accountable to making an effort, I like Goldfarb’s (2021) suggestion to send an introductory message to 3-5 people in your unit/college/etc. that you want to get to know better. Include some specific suggested times to meet rather than a vague proposition (e.g. “let’s meet up sometime!”). If you’re feeling anxious about starting a conversation with a near stranger, consider coming from a place of genuine curiosity about the work they do. Collum (2020) noted that asking open questions can “inspire conversations and connections that can help form the foundation for long-term professional relationships.” Once you’ve broken the ice, chances are you will already have some common ground to work with that can invite more personal details about each of your lives. If you can see a friendship starting to blossom, setting up recurring meetings can be an excellent way to ensure that you’re maintaining the relationship and making time to catch up even during busier seasons at work.
Seek out campus engagement opportunities that align with your interests and bridge functional areas.
Once you’ve gotten down the basics of your day-to-day work, consider getting involved in cross-institutional groups or committees on campus whose causes resonate with your personal and professional values. A personal example is joining the First-Generation, Undocumented, and Low-Income (FUNL) Network at Northeastern, which has allowed me to connect with other colleagues who share a dedication to improving services for the FUNL student population at our institution. Hirschy et al. (2015) found that these kinds of cross-divisional interactions can foster experiences that “challenge and support [our] understanding of what it means to [us] to be a student affairs professional” (p. 790). Other kinds of local engagement opportunities could include a staff advisory council, staff union, affinity groups, or volunteering efforts, blending an investment in professional development with opportunities for personal connection.
When in doubt, turn to professional organizations to stay grounded and connected.
If your community-building efforts in your workplace aren’t leading to the depth of friendships and professional connections you’re seeking, remember that your NASPA NPGS community is here to support you with a wealth of resources to #NavigateTheNow. Come to a workshop, suggest an idea, or join our SC—we are here to uplift and support you!
Author: Heather Hardy (she/her) is the Graduate Program & Communications Coordinator for the English Department at Northeastern University and a member of the NPGS SC Regional Engagement Working Group. A devoted student advocate, Heather leverages her power as an institutional “insider” and faculty partner to dismantle barriers inhibiting students’ access to critical resources for success. Heather is a proud first-generation, low-income student who earned her B.M. in Music Education from New York University and her M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
Collum, L. (2020, April 6). Navigating culture shock in career transitions. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/04/06/five-strategies-help-you-navigate-career-transitions-opinion
Goldfarb, A. (2021, March 1). How to stay social when you never see your work friends. Time. https://time.com/5938509/how-to-stay-social-work-from-home/
Hickman, A. (2018, March 29). Why friendships among remote workers are crucial. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236072/why-friendships-among-remote-workers-crucial.aspx
Hirschy, A. S., Wilson, M. E., & Liddell, D. L., Boyle, K. M., & Pasquesi, K. (2015). Socialization to student affairs: Early career experiences associated with professional identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 56(8), 777–793. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2015.0087
Mull, A. (2021, January 21). The pandemic has erased entire categories of friendship. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/01/pandemic-goodbye-casual-friends/617839/
Strayhorn, T. L. (2009). Staff peer relationships and the socialization process of new professionals: A quantitative investigation. The College Student Affairs Journal, 28(1), 38-60. https://link.ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/staff-peer-relationships-socialization-process/docview/89071344/se-2?accountid=12826