Here is an odd confession: I don’t really know how I met most of my friends. Sometimes I’ll be in a pub or at a party talking to a group of people and one of them will ask “how do you guys know each other?” and the friend and I will look at each other quizzically and shrug. “Some form of alcohol-based socialising? I think?” is usually the answer I give, because it is all I have.
I see this as a good thing: there will always be adults doomed to remain tethered to their school and university friends, but the point of living in a big city surely is to see where the current can take you. I spent most of my twenties haunting London’s many drinking establishments and now get to rest on my laurels, surrounded by all sorts of weird, kind, clever and funny people.
Well, I thought I could. After the lockdown ended in 2020 and the “rule of six” was put in place, I remember thinking that something was off. I could see my friends again, sure, but part of the picture was missing. As a number of people put it at the time, I’d got the main cast back together but was still missing the supporting characters.
Because our social lives were still restrained, there was no longer any space for the random acquaintances who were loitering nearby, or the quiet drink turned raucous because everyone happened to be in the same place at the same time. Spontaneity and happy coincidences were gone; everything was planned and predictable. Slowly, imperceptibly, our social lives got smaller.
Life is better now, but not entirely. For a while I thought I was the problem; I got it into my head that I simply wasn’t as popular as I’d once been, that I just had to make my peace with it. Recently, however, I have come to realise that I am not alone.
One by one, friends have been confessing to me that they are finding it hard to get their social life back to pre-pandemic levels. None of them could quite put their finger on why – somehow, it just felt like everything was that bit harder, took that much more effort, involved that much more foot-dragging.
Still, one potential culprit featured in all conversations: working from home. In our social circles, as in presumably most others, many people only go into the office a couple of times a week, if at all. As my friends will freely admit themselves, this means that they are rarely in central London and, if working from home until the evening, are unlikely to schlep to into the city centre for a drink afterwards.
This has a number of ramifications. Firstly, these people are unlikely to want to pour themselves into a Soho pub at short notice; any plans made with them must require some planning, and ideally take place in their neighbourhood. Secondly, if they do happen to make it to said Soho pub, they will almost certainly do so alone.
There won’t be a stray friend who happened to be at a loose end at the end of the working day, or a colleague who could do with a stiff drink. In fact, if they have changed jobs since the pandemic, they probably aren’t on pub terms with many of those colleagues anyway. That is, in turns, a shame in more ways than one.
If you are new to a career, being able to create your own informal networks in your industry of choice can be invaluable. It may help you get a promotion further down the line, give you intel on where your next job may be, or simply provide you with support if and when you end up feeling a bit lost. Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you may even end up making friends for life, enriching the lives of your other friends in the process.
After all, social circles usually benefit from everyone in them having many other friends around. You may not fancy your colleague but one of your best friends might, and it could lead to a happy relationship. You may not have any great interest in kayaking, as your best mate from university does, but this new acquaintance you’ve recently met happens to be looking for a kayaking partner. You faintly remember hearing your housemate say that he would love to go on holiday in Tanzania but doesn’t know where to start and, coincidentally, your colleague’s partner happens to be from there.
Few of these interactions could happen unless all those people end up, more or less randomly, sharing the same pub table. Serendipity cannot be taught or forced, but with some effort it can be nudged. If you want to roll a dice and hit a six, you are more likely to do so if you keep rolling it.
None of this means that everyone should be forced back to their desks overnight. There are many reasons why people prefer working from home, all entirely reasonable: it saves on commuting costs, it makes it easier to fit work in around childcare, it can overall be more convenient. My only worry, I suppose, is that what we have lost is too intangible to be noticed until it’s too late.
A commute that was one hour and is now one minute is quantifiable; there is no way to know for certain what stopping for a quick post-work drink could lead to, either immediately or months down the line. Short-term comfort is understandably worth fighting for, but it feels worth asking what it may be replacing in the long term.
[See also: Nurses don’t strike lightly]