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March 1, 2021 9:29 AM EST

One of the hardest parts of working remotely is losing the built-in social life an office environment provides. But just because you’re not in the same building as others doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be a hermit.

Start building your out-of-office social life by reaching out to coworkers you like—and talking about things besides work. There are plenty of reasons why this might feel awkward at first, says Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time. Perhaps you’re not used to initiating contact outside of work, or you may feel burned out on virtual communication, so the idea of scheduling one more Zoom call isn’t particularly enticing, she says.

But it’s a good idea to push through your discomfort. Any form of social connection is great for your mental and physical health; loneliness is linked to a higher risk of health problems like anxiety, depression and heart conditions, while having strong social ties is linked to the opposite. Relationships with coworkers are particularly important not only to your own wellbeing, but also to that of your entire organization.

When friendships happen among colleagues, “people feel more engaged, turnover and absenteeism go down, we see better performance, people are better communicators, there’s even a link to innovation,” says Terri Kurtzberg, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School and author of the book Virtual Teams: Mastering Communication and Collaboration in the Digital Age.

So even if it’s uncomfortable, or if you’re feeling shy, you should still make an effort to nurture friendships from work. Here’s how to do it.

Be the one to reach out

Nelson suggests jotting down the names of three to five people in your office who you miss or who you would like to get to know better. This will help you prioritize which relationships you’re most keen on maintaining or developing.

When you reach out, Nelson suggests an opening line like, “Would you want to hop on a call for 15 minutes before our team meeting next week to catch up a bit?” Be as specific as possible: “How’s Thursday at noon?” is better than “Let’s chat sometime.”

During the call or video chat, Kurtzberg encourages people to be vulnerable and share what’s really going on in your life. “Sometimes we aim for professionalism to the point where we don’t come across as human, and I think people like it better if you’re just a person,” she says. “Let people in a little bit to your world. It goes a long way in building connections.”

If you’re worried about making conversation, you can even brainstorm a handful of topics to address before you hop on a call: books you’ve read, podcasts you’ve enjoyed or television shows you’ve binged.

Find common ground

“Positivity isn’t just saying positive things,” Nelson says. “Our goal isn’t to be positive; our goal is for both people to leave feeling better for having interacted.”

To boost positivity in your work friendships, ask your colleagues what’s been bringing them joy lately. You can also start a Slack channel in which to post articles, songs, recipes and podcasts that have been inspiring or comforting. With closer work friends, create a group text chat where you send each other positive messages or silly videos.

No matter how close you are right now, you may even come up with a health-related or hobby-related goal you’d like to achieve together. “Relationships are such a great medium for accountability,” says Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. This is a “mutually beneficial way to fulfill your need to connect and also help you with the pile of things that you might have going on.”

Interruptions will happen. Be upfront about them

“When we’re online, when we’re on video, even if we’re on the phone with each other, you can tell in a second when somebody’s attention goes somewhere else,” Kurtzberg says. “And it’s damaging. People do notice; they do hold it against you.”

Be forgiving when interruptions happen on the other end, and when they happen to you, simply explain yourself outright, Kurtzberg suggests. Say, “Hang on one second. I need to answer a question from my kid.” People will be much more forgiving because “if you zone out for a second, it’s like people take it personally,” she says.

Automate check-ins

Franco suggests scheduling a recurring appointment with a co-worker to catch up—at lunchtime, on Monday afternoons, whatever works for you both. Having these regular meetups in your calendar is a way to “simulate the water cooler moments where you just kind of bump into each other and you just have a conversation that’s not related to work,” Franco says. These are the kinds of interactions you miss out on when working from home, but you can get the same experience by linking up virtually. Making check-ins automatic also takes the guesswork out of when you’ll touch base with your coworkers next.

Stick the landing

At the end of your conversation, Nelson recommends expressing your appreciation to your coworker. Thank them for taking the time to speak with you, and share what you enjoyed about your conversation. Giving a sincere compliment, like “I think your ideas are going to make a difference,” can brighten their day and yours.

“Those final moments are so powerful,” Nelson says. It’s “really important that we end well and end validating each other,” which helps us connect better virtually when we can’t in person.

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