Why some Gen Z workers are changing attitudes about relationships in the office

BOSTON — Drinks after work. Grabbing lunch. Sharing a surprise birthday cake. The office has been a catalyst for a lot of social interaction, and friend making, over the years.

One young man in the Back Bay told us he’s ready to get back to the office. “I think it’s healthy for people to talk to other people face to face, eye to eye, and just be humans again.”

As the pandemic winds down, some younger workers are expressing less interest in going to back to work to foster close relationships.

When an op-ed piece entitled “My generation isn’t looking to make friends at work” appeared in the Boston Globe in March, it quickly became one of their most read stories.

The Gen Z author wrote, “There’s a growing contingent of Gen Z knowledge workers who are test-driving a new version of adult social life – one centered outside of the workplace.”

Boston 25 News asked two 20-something women who are work friends what they think about this column. One said, “You have friends at work like us and we want to see each other. I do know a lot of people who really don’t have friendships because they were hired during COVID and don’t really have that connection.”

Sarahbeth Golden, a psychology professor at Lasell University in Newton, said she thinks some of this trend can be attributed to the general characteristics of Gen Z. “It may not be that ‘I don’t need to make friends in my workplace.’ It’s more ‘I’m going to make friends the way I want to make friends.’”

That means more emphasis on technology to create bonds with others as opposed to working in a neighboring cubicle.

Elaine Varelas, a management consultant at Keystone Partners in Boston says, “Watching someone relate to other people is very different than watching them on Zoom relate to other people.”

She believes young workers won’t develop as fully if they don’t have enough in-person interaction. “Their friendships have developed very, very differently. They relate differently. . . and so that whole different mentality is something that we need to figure out as organizations, how to support them in developing these other kinds of relationships.

Companies are uncertain how to deal with this evolving dynamic and so are young workers. One man told us “It will be interesting to see how we make friends going forward. I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think that the water cooler is dead,” said Golden. “And it may not be a kegerator either. I’m not sure what it will be, but I don’t think this is a permanent thing. We’re still in the throes of a global pandemic and we’re trying to figure out what we want, and I think that this younger generation is feeling empowered to carve their own path.”

Some younger workers say they’re more focused on flexibility than friendship, that they want to be able to work and travel, for example. Others said spending a lot of time commuting is another factor.