Paul Hopkins: Imagine a life without those water-cooler moments

You can spend more time in your life with those with whom you work than with the person you set up home with, your lover or your children. Eight hours a day for 40 odd years.

Traditionally, fellow-workers had little choice but to bond during those 40 plus hours a week together but, if remote working becomes the new norm, such relationships — the good and the bad — will be a thing of the past.

In the years BC, Before Covid-19, many of us during long workdays found respite in the company of others. Some — or often, one in particular — we confided our innermost thoughts to, whether it was regarding our views on the boss or how things at home were not exactly going to plan. All those water-cooler moments that helped us get through the day, the week, so we could all go for drinks come Friday.

Making friends at work was — is — rarely a job requirement, yet in one survey 82% had at least one work friend while 30% say that they have a 'best friend' at work. While for most such friendships stay firmly within working hours, others extend beyond the 9 to 5, into the territory of 'real friends', many taking the plunge into full-blown, life-long relationships.

Those who study such matters say that having a close work friend increases fulfilment, productivity, and even loyalty to the company; on the flip side, loneliness in the office can affect both professional and personal well-being.

That said, in the years AP, After the Pandemic, the absence of casual chats in the corridor and the gossip of water-cooler moments and long lunch breaks could potentially make us feel more isolated, according to Hilla Dotan, an organisational-behaviour researcher (don't ask!) at Tel Aviv University. “What we’re doing through virtual work is we’re neutralising the social aspect of work,” she says.

Like any long-distance relationship, remote-working friendships depend on us making that extra effort to keep in touch. Without those tactile friendships at work, those working from home can end up feeling stressed and alienated, and that's before the kids get under your feet.

An acquaintance of mine, who is a relationships counsellor, tells me that, while the work-place 'relationship of convenience' may now become rarer, people will likely still make the effort for those fellow-workers with whom they really connect. The rise of remote working may just mean that work friendships no longer play a big part in our professional life — and that only the very few become more like 'real' friendships.

There’s an epidemic of loneliness in modern society, particularly in rural Ireland, of which I've written before in this column. It’s becoming even more pronounced among young adults, those aged 18 to 24, which is, sadly, leading to many social and health issues.

As we get older, we typically have fewer and fewer friends. With building a career and, for those who have children, parenting, the older we get the less energy we have for socialising. We also probably feel less inclined to forge new friendships that are in any way meaningful; we also suffer fools less easily.

In Arthur Miller's 'Death of A Salesman', considered by some to be one of the greatest contemporary plays, Willy Loman, the unstable, insecure and self-deluded anti-hero of the title, talks about the need to be well-liked and how being popular at work is even more important than being smart. “Be liked and you will never want,” he tells his son Biff. How we are well-liked and regarded by our work peers is hard to measure when working from a laptop in the kitchen of your home and the baby running amok behind you.

Speaking of popularity in the work place, there was a colleague of mine years ago, a good newsman, who daily attempted to inveigle himself into the inner sanctum that was the Editor's domain.

One night over a pint after the first edition had gone to bed, I said to the Editor (probably the consummate editor among editors): “So-and-so is good, isn't he?”

“He is good,” said my Editor, and then: “He's good but not as good as he thinks he is.”

And the denouement: “Of course, I taught him everything he knows... but not, mind you, everything I know.”

That's the kind of camaraderie I miss in my eight years working from home. That, and the gossip.

Read Paul's column every week in the Meath Chronicle

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