“I have to book a meeting just to get an answer to the simplest question.” “I get so stuck when there’s nobody around to bounce ideas off.” “I feel so lonely and isolated when I’m working from home.” So many of our pain points around hybrid work come down to the impact on our collegial relationships: When we spend a lot of our time outside the workplace, we miss the serendipitous collisions that allow us to ask our colleagues for a crucial bit of information. We miss human sounding boards. We miss human interaction! These are all problems we can solve—and solve in ways that let us have an even better experience of collegiality than what we fondly recall from the old, pre-2020 office! But to do that, you need to embrace AI, change your social rhythms and rethink the idea of collegiality itself. Here’s how.
Replace your colleagues with robots
There’s a lot about human colleagues that can’t be replaced with AI. AIs will not gossip with you by the watercooler, tell you if you have spinach in your teeth (yet) or steal your lunch from the office fridge. But AIs can take over some of the functional aspects of your collegial relationships, if you… Create an AI answer-bot. If you still miss the opportunity to get a quick bit of info by popping your head into the neighboring cubicle, it’s a sign that your team or organization has done a poor job of building an effective system for knowledge sharing and transfer. The best way to ensure you can get access to the knowledge your colleagues hold is by centralizing your information in things like a customer relationship management system (CRM), an internal file share or wiki, and a culture where people ask questions on shared and searchable Slack or Teams channels (so if a question has been asked before, you can find the answer). Failing that, you can use AI to build your own repository of query-able information: Copy documents into a shared Coda (which now integrates GPT), or drop a folder full of internal reference PDFs into a research tool like Genei or PDF Search. Now you can ask the PDFs or documents a question, just like you’d ask a colleague. Brainstorm via chat. The more I brainstorm with AIs, the more I wonder how I put up with humans. If I need to bounce around some potential story ideas, working with a chat-based AI tool gives me a non-judgmental sounding board that is game to give me ten variations on any idea in a matter of seconds. I have had great results brainstorming with OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Anthropic’s Claude; I just need to provide an example or two of what I’m looking for, and then ask for 10 more alternatives. If I provide feedback the way I would to a human colleague (“hmm, those are kind of boring”, or “I love these two ideas, but these three didn’t work for me because X”) then over the course of a few back-and-forths, I can rapidly refine my own ideas. And unlike human-to-human brainstorming, where you have to stick with the “no bad ideas” principle if you want to keep everyone’s creativity flowing, you can tell an AI that some of its ideas suck without it getting creatively blocked.
Change your social rhythms
Beating the isolation of hybrid work means recognizing social interaction as a valuable part of your work life—not just because it provides idea-sparking interaction and valuable peer perspectives, but because our human meat brains actually require human contact in order to perform effectively. Just like you would not expect to do a great day’s work on an empty stomach, you can’t work well without regularly refilling your tank with some social interaction. (Yes, introverts, this applies to you, too.) Valuing social interaction as a key part of our human lives means thinking about our work pace and our social pace in tandem. So… Work around your social calendar. If there are people who energize and inspire you, organize your work schedule around the windows when you have an opportunity to spend time with your favorite people! That PowerPoint deck or file full of data is happy to get your attention at 6 a.m., 6 p.m. or anytime in between, but your dear friend who is only in town for one week might only be able to see you from 12 to 4. This is the beauty of hybrid work, people! Get up early or do some work on the weekend so that you can use that middle-of-the-workday window to go for a walk on the beach with your beloved pal; just be sure to put on sunscreen first. Socialize around your best work (and sleep) windows. In situations where you’re not constrained by the schedules of your friends and muses, integrate social time into the windows when your work energy tends to dip, or the windows when you’re least likely to be needed by your boss or clients. Since almost all my colleagues and clients are in a time zone that’s three hours ahead, I try to book in-person dates and phone calls between 3-7 pm my time, because I know I’ll be ready for a break and am unlikely to be required by a client. Late-afternoon walks (or virtual walks, as a phone call) let me get my body moving after a day stuck at my desk, and early dinner dates let me get home in time for my ever-earlier bedtime. (Turning into a morning person has been really helpful for a professional life that’s mostly in another time zone.)
One reason we get so stuck on the limitations of hybrid collegiality is because we think of our colleagues as the people who work for the same employer, and we think of collegiality as something that happens when we’re all in a room together. But when we only spend one or two days in the office, rushing from meeting to meeting, we may miss the opportunity for the unstructured, off-topic interactions that can foster a sense of intimacy, and when we’re working together online, it can be hard to let down our guard enough to be vulnerable in ways that build trust. To fix both sides of this equation… Be human online. With all the focus on time management and “professionalism”, it can be hard to let down our guard and really connect with our co-workers. So while I would not recommend devoting 20 minutes of a 45-minute call to personal chitchat, I’m a big fan of the two-minute warm-up where you tell your colleagues about the TV show you think they’ll love, or share a funny story about burning all the cookies for your kid’s bake sale. I also like friending colleagues on Facebook, though I’m careful to put them on my “restricted” list: That way they see the stuff I share publicly (like dog pictures), and perhaps see me more like a whole person, but don’t have to be subjected to my kid stories or sweary bits. See colleagues everywhere. The most valuable way hybrid work can transform your experience of collegiality? By blurring the line between friends and colleagues. Just about all the friends I see regularly are people with whom I share professional interests or overlap, so our conversations veer from comparing pedicures to talking about AI prompts; we might move onto discussing the latest Star Trek episode and then go back to talking about the best way to approach a tricky workplace topic. That blurriness helps assuage any guilt I feel about “playing hooky” to socialize during a workday: More often than not, I return from one of my social breaks with a solution to a difficult work problem or an idea for a new article. Even more important, it enriches my friendships, because we feel deeply invested in one another’s work, as colleagues in the larger project of making the world a slightly less messed-up place.
Many years ago, I heard a musician talk about how he aspired to make music with all his friends, because otherwise, it was so hard to find time with his favorite people. That’s what the new workplace should enable for all of us. We all deserve opportunities to make music with our favorite people, because we never know which conversations will lead to the next professional breakthrough, the next great idea, or perhaps most important of all, the next level in an ever-deepening friendship. This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.