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Co-Worked: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
At my first post-college job, I won the coworker lottery. I was part of a small team of people who were equal parts witty, compassionate and badass. I was the youngest by about seven years. And while they often joked about me being the baby in the bunch, they totally took me under their wing. These coworkers-turned-friends showed me the ropes of making it in radio: what it looks like to stand up for your creative ideas, fight impostor syndrome and safely make it home after one too many glasses of prosecco. As I transitioned into my next job, I preemptively hunted down someone to be my friend. She gave me the lay of the land before I even started, and took me out to a beer on my first day. Those gestures set the stage for what would become a very sweet friendship. I can safely say that I wouldn't have made it through my 20s without my work friends. Now, a bit later in my career, after becoming a manager and transitioning to a hybrid office model, work friendships don't look the same as they used to. I'm not nostalgic for those champagne headaches, but I am for some of the ease of those first friendships.

This is Embodied, our show tackling sex relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was finding work friends so early in my career.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
I really felt a lot of pressure for getting tenure and felt like I needed to be working all the time, and that if I made connections at work, it would get in the way of my ability to do the work.

Anita Rao
That's Dr. Marisa G. Franco. She's a professor and psychologist who became an expert on friendship. But at her first job in academia, she was not there to make friends.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
I would say there's an extra dimension to that, in that I was one of the only Black faculty members too, so I probably felt a little less comfortable coming in also being, I guess, the only one of my group. So I kind of isolated myself. I didn't make a lot of efforts to connect with people, and it really affected my fulfillment on the job.

Anita Rao
Tell me more about that. At what point did you start to realize that this way of being with your coworkers wasn't really serving you?

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Ah, this is like one of the most dorky academic answers, but I was running a research study. And in it, I was administering a survey that assesses loneliness. It's called the UCLA Loneliness Scale. And I did the survey myself. And I realized that I was lonely. And funny, I didn't know it before then butt I guess loneliness isn't just — because I figured I'm around people every day, I'm not lonely. But the questionnaire really gets at, do you feel like you're yourself around people? Like, do you feel authentic around people? And the answer was no, I didn't feel like people around me really knew me or that I really knew them. So I was, in fact, lonely. And then as I continued to just observe what was happening around me, I noticed two things. First, like we need to get grants to succeed in academia. And people would — my colleagues would ask their friends to be on grants with them. So I felt like oh, my gosh, I'm working harder, but not smarter. Like I'm spending so much more time working, and fundamentally, it's not leading to my success. And that, that really sucks. And so maybe creating connections is part of what is going to make me more successful on the job.

Anita Rao
It can be so hard to, in that beginning life as an academic, when you kind of know you're on this path, you have 18 different roles you're supposed to be fulfilling. And you're also trying to think about your social life. So once you realized, okay, the results are in, I'm lonely, and it's hurting my professional career — what did you do then?

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Hmm, well, it wasn't until I really started my next job that I had, literally had to read all the research to be convinced that I needed friends at work. And the research told me that people with friends at work, they're more fulfilled, they're more successful, they form better teams, they're less likely to leave their jobs, they're even less likely to take sick days, like they're just doing better all around and they're more engaged, like any outcome that you would want in a workplace. So I kind of realized that it was really important for me to make friends — as important as the work that I was doing, it was important for me to feel like I belonged. So when I went into my next job, we had our initial onboarding. And I saw another woman there and she was wearing like this really cool, colorful scarf and I was like, she looks like someone I get along with. So we, you know, I struck up conversation with her and then asked her to go to lunch together. And Rachel — we ended up having lunch every week at work, and we still hang on now.

Anita Rao
That's really awesome. I mean, and it took, obviously, you taking that first initiative, which I know is something that you talk a lot about when it comes to friendship is you kind of have to make yourself vulnerable. And take that first step. Talk to me a bit about the challenges of doing that, especially with workplace friendships.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Woof. Yeah, well, we think friendship happens organically. And in adulthood, it doesn't. When it does happen organically, it's because we're seeing someone repeatedly over time, and there's shared vulnerability. So we have that at work. We see people repeatedly over time, but there's not often vulnerability. A lot of the time we're only sharing, you know, about the work. And we're not really talking about who we are as people, which is why one study found that spending more time together at work is linked to being less close, which is just so, so wild. So I think if you want to connect at work, you have to stop talking about work. You have to talk about your hobbies, your interests, you know, who you are outside of the workplace, what do you do in your free time and ask questions of other people that welcome them to share the same.

Anita Rao
You heard that right. The more time you spend with your colleagues, the less close you feel with them. That closeness gap is related to something many of us have internalized called "the myth of the employee." This idea that when we go to work, our needs, fears and emotions aren't supposed to come with us. We are just worker robots. Not true, and certainly not conducive to creating real friendships which require vulnerability. But letting yourself get vulnerable in a workplace filled with ever evolving power dynamics can be really tricky.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
I do believe that deep connection doesn't form in a hierarchy. Because if I'm higher than you, I'm less interested in knowing all of you because I assume that you know, I have more information than you do. And if I'm feeling lower than you, I'm scared of sharing all of myself, because I could, you know, be more affected if you judge those parts of me. So it is particularly hard, I think, to connect with your boss as a friend. And it also creates a bit of a dual role. So I think, if you're connecting across the hierarchy, I suggest more of going for like, friendly, and even if it's really hard to become friends, right? So you can be kind towards each other, you can show interest with each other, you can celebrate each other's successes, like all of that is part of, like, being really friendly and having a good relationship with your boss. You can be responsive to each other's needs if someone has a particular work style. And that's all great.

But I think it's easier for people to form those deeper connections that really feel like friends with peers — people where there's less of a hierarchy and people feel more free to kind of share about themselves. And I think, you know, sometimes people are really afraid of being vulnerable at work, because this can be used against me. But I really think that vulnerability is a spectrum. So you don't have to tell your coworkers what you're talking about in therapy, but you could still be a little bit more vulnerable to them. I mean, you could share, you know, about your family, your hobbies, your interests. Where are you traveling to recently, what something you've been learning, what media are you consuming? Like, there's so many things you can share to be a little bit more known in the workplace that aren't going to make things feel more risky for you.

Anita Rao
You've mentioned that first work friend Rachel and the beginning of that relationship being over kind of noticing her scarf. Talk to me about how you navigated that relationship as it continued and figured out what you wanted to share and be vulnerable out and, and what you maybe needed to keep a little bit private as you were starting to get to know each other and starting this new job.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
You know, Rachel and I, we worked in different departments. So that did make things feel a little bit more safe for me. And we ended up forming a friend group I think with with other people that we both like we invited them to our weekly lunch together, setting up a reoccurring time to connect I think can be a really great way to foster workplace friendships. And I would say things did get more vulnerable with us over time, when we kind of incrementally built that trust with each other. I would also say that we honestly hang out outside of work. And one thing that I think is really important for workplace friends if you want them to become real life friends is what's called re-pot the friendship, which means change the setting in which you interact. Invite them to hang out outside of work sometimes, to come to a play or a walk or to a museum. And then your friendship has so much more staying power because it indicates that we don't just need to be at work for us to be able to be friends with each other. So now we have like a monthly dinner with different friends in the workplace that we made.

Anita Rao
Re-pot your friendship. I love that phrase. And it gives me full permission to extend the metaphor further. You've got to attend regularly to work friendships once they're in a new pot, because without that, their lifespan is going to be short. Or something like that, I think I lost the metaphor. But what I'm trying to say is that not all work friendships can sustain change. When someone's transferred to a new department or gets a promotion, dynamics can shift quickly. That's what happened to a listener named Nick.

Nick
When I was first onboarded, my coworker who trained me, we were very close in age — only a year or two apart — and had the same background in English, the humanities, creative writing all of that. And we were at a job that was distinctly uncreative. A lot of our bonding, especially going through these very boring workdays, involved talking about kind of our hopes and dreams and more the creative arts aspect. It evolved over time, especially when she eventually became my manager. And it was there that some of that closeness started to get in the way of things. There were definitely two different people that I would sometimes find myself talking to. One was my friend, and the other was my manager. To some degree, I feel like that eroded things to the point where after leaving that job, that friendship isn't quite there the same way that it was before, in the sense that I don't, I don't know if we would consider ourselves friends except for acquaintances.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
So first of all, Nick, I think that, you know, the struggle is understandable. Like I said, it's very hard to form connection on a hierarchy. And so when a relationship goes from nonhierarchical to hierarchical, it can feel really confusing to navigate, because each type of relationship has a different set of expectations to it. And I think a lot of people would really struggle in this situation. I would say, if you are going through this experience again, it might be important to just have an initial conversation, right, acknowledging that, "Hey, I'm going to be going into manager role, I wasn't in a manager role beforehand, I know that that's gonna change the dynamics for you. What does it look like for us to work together successfully? You know, I might have to request a view to do this, this and this for me, like, that's how things might change. What will be the impact on you and our relationship? How do I navigate this well in a way that you can receive it well?"

Right, just having those initial — that initial conversation to lay the groundwork for a successful working relationship, so that all of these unclear expectations that are changing and evolving are made a lot more clear and explicit. And that conversation I think should be an iterative conversation. I think there should be another check in one month in like, "Okay, how are we navigating this, this, you know, change in our relationship? What do we need from each other to work well going forward?" So what I hear in this relationship between Nick and his manager friend is like, the unsaid was never made set. So the dynamic was changed, but it wasn't explicitly acknowledged, so there wasn't the empowerment to try to, to lay a path forward that would be most workable.

Anita Rao
Do you think it's important to have that conversation, like, in a work context, like "Come into my office, let's chat about this," or in a friend environment or neutral environment? Like, "Let's go to a coffee shop" or "Let's get lunch." You know, because I feel like that changes how you approach the conversation.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Yeah, that is true. And I feel like I guess there's trade offs with each like, in some ways, I guess, if you're wanting to like, have a more managerial role and suss out that part of the relationship having at the office can help, versus I guess if you're in the coffee shop, the more friendly side of the dynamic is going to come out. So I wouldn't say that I can identify like one particular place, but more so that each place is going to bring out different sides of your relationship. So maybe it makes sense to think about what part of the relationship are we going to really focus on or prioritize in this moment, and choose the setting that would best reflect that.

Anita Rao
Yeah, that's great. That's great advice.

I want to talk with you about an experience I had in a former job that I think kind of illustrates a lot of the common challenges in workplace relationships. So I was working in this really small department about 10 people, all doing creative work, and we would often socialize outside of work. And this job also involved occasional travel in which a couple of people would, kind of, pair off and travel together and go on a trip. And I went on a trip with a coworker and had this particularly challenging experience with her, kind of saw side of her that I'd never seen before. And I really struggled to navigate that once we got back and were socializing in this group context. And I guess the first thing that I really wanted to do was vent to my other coworker friends to kind of make sense of what had happened or see if anyone else who had traveled with her had similar experiences. And the venting did really feel helpful at first, but I think in the long run, it kind of ended up biting me in the butt. So I guess I'm curious about like, is there a healthy way to vent in work friendships or is that just gonna poison the well no matter what?

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
So tell me more about why do you think it bit you in the butt?

Anita Rao
Well, because of the friends that I vented to ended up trying to remedy the situation or the tension between me and the coworker I'd gone on a trip with by confronting the coworker on my behalf.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Oh, gosh, I think we just need to acknowledge that venting, like any form of social connection, has risks and rewards, right? So the rewards are you feel validated, you might feel closer to these people, which has happened for me before, right? There's been a coworker that maybe I struggled with, that I didn't realize everybody struggled with. And then we were able to all validate each other's reality. And it feels like we're not all, you know, just making things up. And, you know, feel more, I guess, confident navigating this coworker moving forward — so that's great. But there's also risks, and there's risks like this information could go back to this initial person that you're venting about, and there's these risks that, you know, that the other person will be offended and won't necessarily receive it well. So my question is like, based on your relationship with this person, how likely are these risks to occur? And if these risks do occur, are you still able to feel like you can move forward comfortably in this job, in this position, right? I'm not necessarily saying don't take the risk. I'm saying understand what the risks are, and make an intentional decision as to whether you are willing to take on those risks, should they happen, for the perceived reward. Just make an intentional decision for yourself.

Anita Rao
That's great. And that's, I mean, it kind of gets me into this idea of how we navigate conflict in the workplace, because I think, you know, all the same emotions that are going to come up in a conflictual relationship outside of work, like anger and fear and discomfort, are going to come up in a conflict with a coworker, but navigating them is harder. It's harder to know how to use emotional language or how to resolve conflict when you're gonna keep seeing this person day after day, hour after hour, maybe working on a project with them again the next day. So talk to me about a good place to start in navigating conflict in these workplace relationships.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco
Oof, yeah. So I think you're exactly right in that who we are affects who we are as employees. I think, you know, healthier workplaces are able to acknowledge that, that we're still people and we have triggers. And, you know, we have baggage, and we have needs, and all of those are also true in the workplace. And so I think addressing the conflict with the employee, I really think it's important to do something called framing, which means you approach the conversation indicating that you're having this conflict because you value the other person, because you want to work together with them, you want to have a smooth experience for the both of you. Like, kind of, framing is a way to say: I want to address this conversation as an act of love, in some way.

So it's being able to say like, "Hey, you know, I know, I acknowledged that we've had this issue before. And I want us to be able to work together well going forward. And so I just wanted to open up conversation as to how we might do that." And then you might express your needs, again, without attacking the other person, not saying they did this, this, this and this wrong, but saying, "You know, sometimes I need more space to figure things out on my own. So I'm wondering if maybe you can give me a week to develop my own ideas, and then I might be able to get your feedback." And then getting their perspective. Perspective taking is really important. "You know, would that work for you? How can we negotiate something that works for the best for both of us?" And then creating that plan for going forward. "Okay, moving forward, we've decided on this thing. Do you think it would be helpful to check in on this again, at some point, you know, as this continues to evolve?" And then you can also set a time to check in too.

Anita Rao
As I was digging into the research on friendship for this show, I was surprised to learn that there's a significant business case for close friendships at work. It's one of the things Gallup has been studying for at least two decades. Their research shows that employees who say they have a work best friend are more likely to get more done in less time, share ideas and have more fun at work. When we asked you all for your friendship stories, we heard something similar. Having an office bestie just makes work a more positive experience overall.

Georgia
All of my closest friendships that I've made in my 20s and 30s have come from work. And I often leave a job with a work wife, who has remained a best friend even after leaving the job. My most recent work wife is named Shana and she and I bonded within a few weeks of meeting at our last job. And we felt very aligned on a lot of things that were contentious for other people. And the bond between us allowed us to be much more fierce at work because we knew that we had an ally.

Clint
We started our friendship during the training process, which is three to four weeks long, and I feel like the friendship building process is rapidly accelerated when you spend that much time together. If we hadn't been able to become friends the way that we did, I think this job would have been a lot more difficult for me. Even though we don't work together anymore, we're still friends. We still get together as often as we can. The experience of training with him and the friendship that we built over the, I don't know, year-and-a-half that we worked together absolutely still impacts my experience with this job every day.

Anita Rao
That was Georgia talking about our work life Shana, and Clint talking about his work friend, Dylan. Georgia is actually one of my high school besties. And in the pandemic, she made staying in contact with friends a priority. With Shana, checking in was part of her daily routine.

Georgia
For two years, every day Monday through Friday, from six to 6:15pm, we had a zoom call. And a lot of people talked about how it was — it's really hard for them working from home to figure out how to kind of turn off their their workday. And I feel like this was our perfect solution. Every single day, we would meet up at six, we would recap what happened that day. And then by 6:15, we would be transitioning into the our life outside of work. And when we both left that job, we tried to maintain that. Now over time it shifted and now we're on a weekly cadence. But I feel like meeting at work and going through all of our trials at work has given us a kind of closeness that's really hard to find elsewhere.

Anita Rao
The pandemic has undeniably changed the work experience for many people. When I first started working from home, I really noticed the absence of all those small daily interactions: catching up while waiting on the microwave or walking back from the bathroom, taking a joint 15 minute snack break. Those moments often planted the seeds for friendship. Gallup, who I told you has been tracking the work bestie thing, reported that the number of hybrid workers in the U.S. who say they have a work best friend has dropped, from 22% in 2019 to just 18% this year.

If hearing that stat bums you out, I'm with you. But I met someone recently who says the decline of the work bestie is not necessarily a bad thing. Her name is Katherine Hu, and she's an assistant editor at The Atlantic. She wrote a piece for The Boston Globe called "My generation isn't looking to make friends at work." It's all about how Gen Z doesn't see work as a social hub. And y'all, it blew up.

Katherine Hu
I wrote a piece about a year into working remotely. It was my first job out of college, and I was in a new city. I had moved there for the job, found myself not going into the office, and also found myself, you know, knowing my colleagues and enjoying their presence, but only so much so as you really could over Slack. And I found myself in that absence looking for avenues to build new friendships outside of a work context, and having to make that choice because I needed to in order to thrive socially in a new city. I started wondering if other young people my age were feeling the same. And that's sort of where the piece originated from.

Anita Rao
So talk to me about what you heard from some of these younger workers, and especially, kind of, their questioning the centrality of labor in their lives and how workplace relationships played into that.

Katherine Hu
Yeah, I really got the sense of, you know, there's a lot of jokes on TikTok, for instance, that say, like, you know, labor is not central to my life. And there's a lot of discourse around wanting a life that is not centered on your work. But at the same time still wanting to succeed in your work and enjoy your work and not having to put your entire life forward in order to have those things happen. I sort of found that a lot of people who had just graduated from college found that long-distance friendships were easier than ever before. And it sort of put them in a place where they, you know, had more options and maybe more of an ability to be more selective with new friends that they made, choosing quality, maybe, over quantity.

Gen Z is definitely not a monolith. And not everyone had the same approach. Young teachers that I talked to, for instance, found that having, you know, the teachers' lounge and conversations there were really crucial to helping them get through a really tough time during the pandemic. But a lot of the workers that I found who were either in a hybrid situation or remote were fulfilled in other ways outside of work, not just socially, but in terms of new hobbies and finding their identity in other things that weren't necessarily their workplace or the work that they did. And I found that particularly interesting.

Anita Rao
So you mentioned Gen Z not being a monolith, which obviously is true, but I will say as a millennial, also not a monolith, but I feel like I was really socialized in workplaces to, you know, be a team player and support your coworkers and you know, stay late if they're working on a project and see maybe if you can help out. And I see your point that this kind of perceived belonging to a community may make people do more than is required of them and put more focus on labor than is necessary. But how do we kind of reconcile the difference there, of you know, wanting to be in a communal collaborative coworking space where your coworkers feel like they can rely on you if they're overstretched or need a little bit of help — but also having appropriate boundaries where, you know, work doesn't take over and become the central part of our lives.

Katherine Hu
Yeah, I think, you know, the way I personally approach it and the way I saw a lot of others approaching it, is that you do as much as you can, for instance, between 9am and 5pm, where your work hours are. And if something happens, and you need to be the person on call, like, you can be the person who's there for your company doing the extra load. But it's also important at the same time to recognize that there are times when you may be called on to do something that is not within your wheelhouse and maybe isn't something you're being, you know, compensated for, or something that you're being asked to do after hours that maybe isn't essential to the company. And protecting your personal time and protecting it just as hard as you work during work hours — I think balancing those two things is really important and allows for you to be a better employee too. Not that that's always the goal, sometimes it's just to live a happy life. But you're a better employee, when you get to enjoy your life outside of work and you feel fulfilled, and you feel refreshed when you log on in the morning, or when you're coming back after a weekend. So I think, you know, protecting your own time as much as you protect the company's time is really where you can sort of seek that balance.

Anita Rao
Another perk of remote work? Leveling the playing field. Nobody knows how tall or short you are. There's no C-suite on the 10th floor or dress code you feel pressured to keep up with — at least from the waist down. Kat says that she heard from so many people that this made a big difference.

Katherine Hu
One of the big things is that when you're in a physical office, the layout of the office, for instance, just that part, where who is the cubicle, and who has the corner office, who has a door — those things really visually remind you all the time of where you stand. And as someone who's young and entering into a workplace, I heard people saying that, you know, it was easier to approach people who were maybe more senior than them to ask for things like mentorship or even to, you know, make a request for coffee, as we discussed earlier with, like, virtual coffees. Having that absence of boundaries, literally, in the Slack workplace and in sort of digital things, like Microsoft Teams, just makes it a lot easier for young people to not feel intimidated. It's difficult to feel intimidated when you've never really seen the, like the hierarchy of your office in a physical space. And I think that is really helpful.

And I think also, it's a dual-edged sword, you know, it makes it easier to approach people. And then on the other side, it also sometimes makes it easier to say no to things. It's easier to be friendlier but it's also easier to set your own boundaries. So if someone's asking you to maybe take on a new task, it's easier to write back to them, you know, "Is this something that is in my wheelhouse, or is there someone else who maybe has more bandwidth to take this on," than it is do that in an in-person conversation if someone comes over to your desk and asks you to take on a new project, and maybe you don't have the bandwidth to do that. So I think it sort of helps in that sense as well. So it sort of goes both ways. You can be more friendly, but you can also set your boundaries in clearer ways.

Anita Rao
I would love to end on hearing kind of your, I guess top tips for setting those boundaries to kind of keep your work and social life balance, but also be open to creating friendships in the workplace.

Katherine Hu
I think that my top tip is to be the most open and friendly person that you can be at work until you've been taught that that's maybe not the right move. And when that happens, it's okay to set your boundaries. I, for instance, sit right by the door at my office. And I make a point to welcome everyone who comes in on the days that I'm, you know, in the office and sitting there. And I think of myself as, like, a bit of an informal welcome committee in some ways. But I also recognize when people maybe don't want that when I'm, you know, not getting the same level of response. And I don't take that personally, I just recognize it. I know that people think about work in different ways, and I respect those boundaries. And similarly, I respect those boundaries for myself. So I think that's my biggest tip. Just be who you are, and see how it's received, and then calibrate.

Anita Rao
Team Embodied is a blend of millennials, Gen Zers and Gen Xers. And there's no doubt that working on this episode got all of us thinking about how we approach work and what our relationships are like with one another.

Kaia Findlay
Yes, this is Kaia, one of the producers. I really like how we share humor together, especially over Slack. Like I like knowing what everybody's favorite emoji is, like Anita, yours is the skull, always good. And yeah, I think that can be really helpful, like, using those little kind of inside jokes or just those little familiarities when we do have a tense day with a lot of deadlines, like, I think that can be really helpful, and I think has made us stronger as a team, just to have those little moments of humor. Curious what Amanda thinks.

Amanda Magnus
Yeah, Kaia, I totally underscore everything that you just said. I think one of the things that I really appreciate about our team is just that there's that room to share with each other about these really vulnerable, intimate body topics that we're talking about. It's like a judgment-free zone we can share about what we're learning and how the things that we're talking about is changing our lives. I don't know, Audrey, what do you think?

Audrey Smith
Yeah, definitely, retweet to all of the above. I definitely am here for the humor and also just the opportunities that we have to relate the topics that we're working with to our own lives. It's been interesting to hear some of those stories, you know, in our one-on-one zoom check-ins, over lunch when we're in person or even over Slack sometimes, just kind of sharing how each topic is resonating with us.

Anita Rao
Kaia, Amanda and Audrey are just three of the folks who make up Team Embodied. We all were working together for so many months before we even met up IRL. And it's safe to say that the nature of the topics we cover on this show grease the wheel for us to be more vulnerable with one another early on, long before we had the opportunity to connect in person. Now we're finding new ways to get to know each other. A team trip to a conference in New Orleans and more frequent in-person lunches have gone a long way in helping us see more sides of one another. And there's much more to come.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Audrey Smith also produces for our show. Madison Speyer is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you enjoyed this show, share about it on social media and tag our accounts @embodiedWUNC. It helps new folks find our show and it means so much. Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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