Whether it’s supporting each other through a tricky work problem, being there for Zoom drinks or simply providing a shoulder to cry on, the pandemic has shown our place of employment is not just for work but for meaningful friendships too.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Dunbar number, it relates to the amount of stable relationships we have the cognitive capacity to maintain. Experts put that figure at around the 150 mark (which might be a lot lower than our Facebook profiles would have us believe). Another common explanation of the concept is ‘the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar’: not all at the same time that is!
But during lockdowns, aside from close family members and a few friends, the faces of our work colleagues are those we probably saw the most on screen and probably made up the significant proportion of those in the inner circles of 3-5 intimate friends or 15 close friends of the Dunbar Number’s 150 people. Previously these smaller, closer groups might have been made up of former schoolfriends, childhood connections or people you went to university or college with. Now they’re more likely to be people you hit up most frequently on Slack.
Friend connections were already dwindling before Covid-19 hit. A 2016 study by Oxford University and the Aalto University in Finland showed that our friendship level peaks at the age of 25 and then declines for the next two decades, with women shedding more friends up to the age of 39. Once we hit 45, the research shows our friendship numbers then plateaus for the next decade. A 2019 by Snapchat also found us Brits are lagging behind other countries when it comes to best friends with 2.6 on average compared with the likes of respondents from Saudi Arabia who reported two and half times that figure. It’s no surprise then that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that levels of loneliness have increased since the pandemic began in spring 2020 and that about 5% of people reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. The ONS also stated that higher loneliness rates among young people are ‘associated with urban areas outside London’.
Fast forward to eighteen months later when restrictions are less strict and we have the opportunities to meet face to face, the close bonds with a small network of work colleagues remain, in contrast to some of our other friendships which have altered or in some cases fizzled out. According to research from Santander carried out in June 2020, one in five respondents think friendships have been ‘strained’ with close to a third (29%) having been disappointed at the lack of contact from certain friends. The situation is so extreme that 14% fear they have lost friends forever as a result of the lockdown restrictions regarding being able to visit people face to face. The study also showed a shocking quarter of UK adults coming to realise they ‘have no real friends’. This positions the office not just as a place to work but a strong social hub too and why the return to work is so crucial for our mental wellbeing, as well as our productivity levels.
Post pandemic friendship is now based around much smaller groups of people and shared interests. As our recreational activities have been curtailed ever more during subsequent lockdowns, so those shared interests might lean more towards work and work-based socialising. And as the bonds of colleagues are so much stronger now given all the upheaval we’ve been through together so issues that would have been strictly personal are now brought into the workplace. One only needs to look at LinkedIn and witness the outpouring of non 9-5 subject matter from recovery from major illness to marriages, engagements and births to see how this once exclusively work-orientated platform has content that is concerned with major life events.