Stay Friends with Your Work BFF — Even After One of You Leaves
It’s painful when a close friend at work moves on to a new job. Losing that regular interaction can result in a lack of three relationship requirements that help us feel close to others: consistency, vulnerability, and positivity. To maintain your relationship with your former coworker, you’ll have to put in some work to establish a new consistency. You’ll need to be proactive in reaching out, and you’ll need to move beyond work as a topic of conversation. Following these steps will help you establish a new pattern of friendship and build on top of the foundation you’ve already built.
Many of us make close friends at work, and there are lots of benefits to those relationships. It can be painful when those friendships end — not because they blow up or become disappointing, but because of something far more innocent: one friend leaves the job.
While we may know on an intellectual level that the workplace won’t feel the same when our friend leaves, we usually believe the relationship will continue outside of work. It’s not until a few weeks or months later when we no longer feel close to them that we’re likely to feel hurt, take the silence personally, and assume the friendship didn’t mean as much to the other as we hoped it did.
That pain runs deep. So deep, in fact, that 30% of respondents in my 2019 Friendships in the Workplace Survey said their greatest fear about making friends at work was that it hurts too much to lose a friendship after the job ends. In fact, this is the fifth-highest-ranked fear about friendship at work; that fear of losing the friendship after the job ranks even higher than the fear of losing that friendship during the job over a fight or breakup.
The news isn’t all bad, though. While I have heard hundreds of stories about people feeling surprised and hurt by friendships that didn’t survive the workplace, in that same survey, more than 61% of respondents claimed to still be close to a best friend from a previous job.
As I’ve written about previously, my research has shown that three relationship requirements drive how close we feel to others:
- Consistency: The shared experiences and regular interactions we have with each other
- Vulnerability: Feeling like we know each other and can share who we are honestly
- Positivity: Feeling rewarded by our relationship because we enjoy each other and feel accepted and appreciated
When a friend leaves our workplace, our relationship comes to a screeching halt simply because our consistency depended on us being paid to show up in the same space and spend time together. Without regular interaction (a lack of consistency), we’ll soon feel like we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives (a lack of vulnerability), and we’ll stop feeling appreciated and having fun together (a lack of positivity).
The key to maintaining your relationship with a former coworker is figuring out what consistency looks like in the next chapter of your friendship. The following steps can help you reconnect with a friend you used to work with — or prevent you from drifting apart in the first place.
Initiate connection. When a friendship primarily lives in your “work-life container,” the only way it can survive when one person no longer comes to that container is to create a new one. You have to figure out your new pattern, new habits, and new ways of staying connected. Unfortunately, none of that just happens — you have to make it happen.
You can do that before they leave the job by starting the conversation with something like, “I want to stay connected with you even in your new job! Any ideas how we can best go about seeing each other regularly now that we won’t get to hang out all day?” Or if they’ve already left, you can reach out with an, “I miss you! Let’s get together before too much more time passes. When works best for you?”
Then initiate again. Whether you’re the one leaving or staying, recognize that it’s going to take some serious effort to rebuild the scaffolding of your friendship outside of work. A relationship doesn’t require that both people take turns initiating; it only requires that both people spend time together in a positive and meaningful way. For too long, we’ve equated initiating with caring more, so we’re more prone to get our feelings hurt if we feel like we’re the only one reaching out. The more important question is: Do we both enjoy spending time together, no matter whose idea it was?
The easiest approach is to set a standing date, like meeting for lunch every Monday, grabbing drinks over Zoom on the last Friday of every month, or calling each other for 15 minutes every day. This establishes a consistent pattern without requiring someone to reach out every time.
Or you might get in the habit of taking a few minutes to set your next date at the end of every get together or call. You could also simply follow up after a conversation with a text or email saying, “As always, so good to connect with you. Do any of these dates work for you for us to do a repeat?”
Broaden the conversation. It may be tempting to focus conversations on updates from the old workplace, but if this friendship is going to thrive, it needs to be based on more than just the job you had in common. Plus, it’s important to be mindful and compassionate of the circumstances of a friend leaving — they may feel left out or pushed out, or you may feel stuck or left behind. The goal is for both parties to feel safe sharing what’s most important to them. You can foster that sense of safety by showing curiosity about your friend’s new situation. One of my favorite questions to shape a conversation is, “I thought it would be fun to each share one thing we’re loving about life right now and one thing that’s causing stress.” This allows each person to pick what they want to talk about most and ensures both people celebrate and support each other.
It can be hard to start a new pattern with someone and find the time to connect on top of everything else you’re doing. But this moment is where you build on top of the strong foundation you already have. As you create new ways of spending time together and talking about new subjects, you transform a work best friend into a close friend and carry the peace that comes from knowing your friendship can survive life changes.