Love at Work: On Loving Your Colleagues, Having a Work Spouse, and Managing Office Romances

By

Dr Eugene YJ Tee

13-02-2020

9 min read

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Romanticism has stolen love and its time to take it back

Love is a word we use sparingly, reserving it only for those with whom we share intimate emotional bonds with. The word conjures up images of besotted couples, our ‘first loves’ from high school who have since gone on to marry another, our parents, and that unforgettable ex who we still ‘accidentally’ run into on social media.

And who can blame us? To say that we love someone is to reveal our deepest wish to be with, care for, and form a connection that extends beyond ‘mere’ friendship. Our sentiments on love are tied to ideals of romance that date back to 18th century Europe. This Romantic period defined art, music and literature throughout the region, revering aesthetic emotions such as transcendence and awe as the wellspring from which artists draw their creative energies.

Fast-forward more than two centuries later and we still hold to the dreamy, rose-tinted conception of love, associating the emotion almost exclusively with romance. Psychological research within the past three decades depicts romantic love delicately – balancing feelings of longing, desire, commitment and obsession with that special someone in our flawed, fickle hearts.

A man carrying his girlfriend in his arms

Whether it is passion or obsession, interest or intimacy, commitment or contempt, love resides in every single dramatic romantic story we’ve experienced. Or guiltily admit to gossiping about. And the research shows that when we are asked to state who we love, we list romantic partners, lovers we can’t yet get over, and our current squeeze.

We express love in modern-day art and music, too. A psychological study published in 2019 showed that from the 1960s to 2010, the content of pop songs consisted predominantly of themes relating to romantic and sexual relationships. Hollywood, Nicholas Sparks, Mills and Boon, and candlelight jazz all express a shared underlying sentiment about romantic love – it is special, desirable, and reserved for the ‘one’.

Read: What’s Your Love Strategy?

Companionate love in the workplace

We think of love as being rarer than it really is, reserved for a select, fortunate few. Psychologist Barbara Frederickson disagrees. In her book Love 2.0, Fredrickson sees one of our most ‘human’ emotions as not something experienced exclusively by star-crossed lovers. Rather, love is something more simplistically beautiful. Love can even be, according to her, that brief, fleeting, but no less powerful moment of connection between two people – and this can even occur between strangers.

This form of love takes on a subtler, more sensitive and gentler tone. Think authentic smiles traded between strangers commuting on the same MRT on their way to work, two acquaintances making light conversation over a mutual friend’s birthday party, or a junior colleague expressing her gratitude to you for helping her out in the first few months on the job. In this sense, much of our prevailing conceptions on love is restricted to just romance alone – the love we witness play out before us on the silver screen is more representative of self-centred, rather than selfless passion.

This other form of love is the quieter, more restrained sibling of romance, directing itself more toward the welfare, well-being and happiness of others. This form of love doesn’t boast of the fireworks of passion we so often come to associate with tragic love stories or romantic comedies.

And we experience this more often than we think we do.

Where do most of us spend most of our hours in any given day? At work. In the office. With colleagues. We spend so much time in our professional roles, form friendships from the office – but oddly, don’t consider that some of our closest, most meaningful relationships are established at work. We don’t usually consider our colleagues as people that we do also love.

Read also: Why We Need to Bring Back Love into the Office

Love is too sacred – too special and is to be reserved for a romantic interest, suitor, or beloved. Love stays out of the office, confined to the cosy living room sofa by the fireplace or that candlelit dinner for two.

However, recent psychological research shows (and you can admit this sheepishly), that you too – love at least some of your colleagues. You spend time with them outside of the office and have meals with them on Fridays. You do favours for them outside of work, and importantly, confide with them on matters both professional and personal.

In contrast with romantic love, we too, feel a kind of love shaped by feelings of companionship, compassion and collegiality. We feel companionate love for our colleagues. And companionate love can lead to beneficial workplace outcomes.

One study of employees, patients and family members of patients from a healthcare facility in the United States showed that a culture of companionate love at work increases employee job satisfaction and teamwork. The study also found that a workplace environment characterised by companionate love lowered absenteeism and emotional exhaustion among staff. A culture of companionate love also increased patient’s – and their family’s – mood, quality of life and satisfaction.

Finally, the patient’s family was also more willing to recommend the healthcare facility to others as a result of feelings of companionate love. The researchers conclude from their findings that love is “…a basic emotion…that does not stop at the organisational door, but rather, has an important influence on what happens within, for both employees and clients alike”.

Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.

Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer, columnist

Happily married on the job: Having a work spouse

Companionate love is also expressed in close collegial relationships with a select few co-workers – affectionately termed work spouses.

Read this: Love at Work

In 2015, researchers Chad McBride and Karla Bergen conducted a study to examine and define the term ‘work spouse’. Intriguingly, the term has seen more use in the popular press than in scientific literature – a point the researchers highlight as the rationale for their study.

A work spouse is someone – usually of the opposite sex, that one shares a close connection with within the workplace. The endearing and affectionately creative terms ‘office husbands’ and ‘work wives’ are also used to describe work spouses.

Collecting open-ended responses from more than 269 employees via a survey, McBride and Bergen define the work spouse relationship as, “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague that is characterised by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect”.

Are you work husband/work wife material?

The researchers state that we see work spouses as those having good character (caring, understanding and empathetic) and those with whom we share similarities with (a term the psychologists refer to as homophily).

That is, our work spouses are comparable to us in terms of our goals, qualifications and work styles. Mirroring much of the characteristics of the model husband or wife, the work-spouse relationship is also one characterised by trust, a strong emotional bond, and frequent, high-quality communication.

Work spouses are, as other researchers argue, a “one-stop-shop… serving as a confidant, provider of general support, advice, emotional support, motivator and source of fun”.

Given that most spend eight hours or more of our waking hours in our professional settings, it should come as no surprise that such relationships can develop in the office. The close interpersonal relationship shared by work spouses do lead to beneficial organisational outcomes – the positive consequences of these relationships largely outweigh the negatives.

Read: Can You Really Power An Organisation With Love?

You may be able to relate to these descriptions or know of colleagues who share this special bond over projects and work assignments or even think of someone you share such a relationship with. And some among you might even jokingly state that the relationships you share with your work spouses are better than your actual husbands or wives.

Humour aside, however, McBride and Bergen are also quick to point out that healthy work spouse ‘couples’ also carefully manage their boundaries in the workplace, ensuring that the close emotional bond they share is directed towards greater performance and satisfaction at work.

Work spouses in conversation

Put another way, the work spouse relationship is not a disruptive influence on either party’s relationship with their actual spouses. Further, the work-spouse relationship is nonsexual in nature, and no potential romantic interests are acted upon by either party.

But of course, we know that such attraction and companionate connections often spill over to something more…

Office romances, and managing hearts at work

Crossing that line between personal and professional relationships at work can result in employees finding themselves developing romantic interests for a colleague at work. In contrast with studies on companionate love in the workplace, office and workplace romances have been the subject of considerable scholarly study for the past two decades.

Even by conservative estimates, some reports state that about 80% of employees have been involved in or know of a workplace romance. Less than 15% of employers, however, had policies dealing with romance or sexual relationships in the workplace.

Statistics on actual engagement in office romances range from 36% to 72% (ranges that also depend on age group), so there is no denying that love can blossom between workstations and within the boardroom.

Business couple looking at each other while using laptop in creative office

Much of the research efforts, however, have been directed towards outlining policies that deal with defining and inhibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. Still, office romances can, and sometimes, do work – people often meet their spouses from work, and still manage to strike that firm, stable distinction between their professional and personal worlds.

As with studies on companionate love culture, offices romances have been shown to lead to enhanced work performance. Compared to close, collegial and non-romantic connections between colleagues (or even work spouses), however, office romances tend to carry greater risks and have greater potential for disruptive consequences in the event the relationship breaks down.

A recent report in The Star highlights the risks of getting romantically involved with a colleague, stating that in the era of the #metoo movement, such advances can be perceived as sexual harassment and an abuse of power – men are likelier to instigate such advances, which can be perceived as inappropriate and unprofessional.

Indeed, much of the scientific literature on office romances has dedicated itself toward considerations about how romantic connections formed in the workplace must sidestep concerns of fairness and favouritism – crucial when the parties involved differ in hierarchy and rank. The firing of high-profile (now-former) CEOs such as Steve Easterbrook (McDonald’s), Steve Kalaniak (Uber) and Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Company) all highlight the minefield-like risks of balancing professionalism with personal passion in the office.

Mature businessman flirting with female colleague in office

This is not to say that office romances won’t or can’t work, however. One only needs to contrast the negative consequences and stories above with Barack and Michelle Obama’s own experiences; the power couple having met when they were colleagues at Sidley & Austin, a law firm in Chicago.

Should you decide to pursue a workplace romance, it is always prudent to first check on company policies regarding how such relationships are viewed and the degree to which they are accepted in your respective professional setting. Concerns for office romances revolve around, as mentioned, power and status differences between the parties involved, or whether the romantic relationship ultimately serves an ulterior, more political-than-personal gain for one of the parties.

The couple also needs to take the necessary steps toward managing the overlap between their personal and professional concerns – separating work from personal concerns (always easier said than done), not publicising their relationship (at least at first), and of course, considering what will be done in the event that the relationship fizzles out.

Read also: The Role Of HR In Building Communities Of Love

Love – be it at work, or outside of it, drive some of our most powerful, creative, and productive energies. And to that end, love can be channelled towards meeting our personal and professional goals. What we need to do – and this is no easy task – is to temper love’s volatility with our most important virtues; to balance its passions with patience and prudence. And doing that perhaps, is arguably more challenging in the boardroom than it is in the bedroom.


Author’s note: This article is dedicated to my supportive colleagues and charming work spouse. You know who you all are <3

Editor’s note: The 21 M.A.D. Days Challenge is kicking off really soon, so it’s time to gather your trusted colleagues, work-spouses and team mates to make a difference in your community! Change begins when people take action in positive ways, regardless how small. Sign up and learn more here – Yes, we will be the change!

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