The inevitability of the office romance


It is decidedly less sexy to send a colleague a winking emoji over messages than to exchange a coy look at the coffee machine. Yet even as the passing interactions that once kindled office romances became impossible during lockdown, colleagues have still found each other – even without conference tables or desks for sparks to fly over.

February 2022 data from the US’s Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests workplace romance may have actually increased as employees hunkered down at home. A third of the 550 Americans surveyed responded that they began or sustained a relationship with a colleague during the pandemic – a 6% rise since the pre-pandemic days of 2019.

Even in a global pandemic, workers have found a way to keep dating colleagues – a fact that underscores the inevitability of office romance. The workplace is a breeding ground for love and lust, even though many companies frown on colleagues dating, and view it as an HR nightmare. Experts say there are specific reasons why workers just can’t stop hooking up with their colleagues – even while siloed during a global health crisis.

A tale as old as time
Despite being considered somewhat taboo, 75% of respondents to the SHRM survey said they were fine with colleagues dating each other. (After all, half said they’d fancied a colleague at some point in time.) And as much as fraternisation is a headache for many companies, romance among colleagues has existed for decades – if not centuries.

“Even going back to the Industrial Era, there was still some discussion about people becoming attracted to each other in the workplace,” says Amy Nicole Baker, professor at the University of New Haven, US, who studies workplace romance and organisational psychology. As far back as the 1800s, there’s been pearl-clutching around romantic interactions in the earliest days of white-collar work, with women and men in offices engaging in ‘behaviours that had no name’, according to critics at the time.

But many lovers meet at work, and it doesn’t necessarily end in scandal (conversely, it could lead to a fairy-tale ending, like the Obamas, who met at a Chicago law office while in their 20s). Data from 2017 shows that as many as one in 10 heterosexual couples in the US say that they met at work. Considering some data shows people in the US between the ages of 20 and 50 spend nearly four times as much time with colleagues than they do with friends, this seems all but bound to happen.

“It’s not surprising that so many people are interested in people at work”, as work has been “taking up more and more and more of our time” for years, says Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University US, who studies the dynamics of workplace romance.

While the most common methods of meeting mates fluctuate – more people get together online now, for example, and fewer people meet through family friends – those finding love at work “is a constant” statistically, says Baker. That constant has lasted into the pandemic, a time in which hooking up with colleagues may actually feel less risky, since you’re out of the watchful eye of your boss or teammates. (Some colleagues are even secretly working from each other’s homes as remote work stretches on.)

“As long as people are interacting together in a shared work environment, you see the basic mechanics of human attraction happening,” says Baker – whether that environment is physical or virtual. And the psychology behind those mechanics keeps inevitably nudging colleagues into something more, even during a pandemic.

‘Intimacy and familiarity’
The workplace is a prime place for two key drivers for attraction to develop, says Amie Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, US, who studies the psychology of relationships. Spending so much time with someone in an environment like the workplace “very likely could lay the ground for romance, because of all the factors we know contribute to romance: intimacy and familiarity”, she says.

First, the more a person sees something (or someone), the more they are disposed to like it. This favouring of familiarity is a psychological bias called the mere-exposure effect. “Just seeing someone repeatedly” can lead to attraction, says Gordon.

Similarly, research on workplace romance has shown that being in the same proximity as someone for a long time can help spur a preference for that person; the more often we see someone physically close, and the more interactions we have with them, the faster interpersonal attraction builds. (That bias could even apply to bosses favouring employees who put in more face time with them.)

But this bias is by no means limited to physical proximity. “It’s also an emotional proximity and an intellectual proximity,” says Baker. Whether on email, Zoom or Slack, “you’re still interacting with each other”, she says. This consistent exposure and interaction still builds preference, regardless of physical location – which may explain why office romance has survived in the remote-work era.

Another factor that transcends a physical office is people’s preference for those similar to them – which could potentially extend to work, considering colleagues picked the same career and company. “If you’re both lawyers, or both trained the same way, or both think of the world in the same way, that similarity will also foster a liking and understanding,” says Baker.

This chemistry can be magnified when people tackle a problem together. Research has long shown stressful situations can build social bonds. But the same phenomenon “absolutely” applies to the workplace, says Baker: “Think about all the common workplace stressors. You have crises that come up: it could be a toxic boss, it could be the logistics of the job, long hours, intense work.” Weathering a gruesome all-nighter or a fallout with a client, “getting through something hard together leads to a sense of ‘we-ness’”, explains Gordon.

It’s inevitable – now what?
Although office romance is practically inevitable – and widely accepted – it’s still complicated.

First, colleagues getting together can increase the risk of sexual harassment claims and reports of hostile work environments, as well as create conflicts of interest. More commonly, an office romance can also make the rest of the team uncomfortable, and affect performance. Observers of the romance can feel unnerved, because “you go from pretty clear workplace norms about what’s acceptable behaviour. Once someone on the team has a dual relationship – so that they’re not just a co-worker – that changes the norm in a way that’s awkward”, says Bohns. “You don’t know what’s appropriate anymore.”

Given office romance isn’t going away, however, some experts say smart companies will allow employees to date, while making sure professional lines aren’t being crossed. “Managing it, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist – or shouldn’t exist – is the better approach,” says Johnny C Taylor Jr, CEO of SHRM. He believes mandatory disclosure – at least to HR and a worker’s direct manager – is key (and many companies have so-called ‘love contracts’ that require workers to do exactly that).

If you’re entering an office romance yourself, experts urge you to think about your motives, and weigh the pros and cons. Crucially, if you’re involved with a boss or subordinate, they urge immediately disclosing the relationship to HR, and asking for a supervisor re-assignment. But if you’re dating a peer, a situation Baker says most people view as less risky or problematic than dating someone at a different power level, it’s up to you to tell anyone beyond HR. Just know the rest of your team “are going to figure it out”, says Taylor.

Baker feels sooner rather than later should be the approach; the longer someone waits to disclose a relationship, the more others will start “to feel like something was being hidden from them” and will “react negatively”. They may mentally review their past interactions with you and your colleague, and re-examine any comments each person made, or suddenly be suspicious about why the two of you went on a business trip, or if you are sharing resources or information the rest of the team doesn’t have. “The more people have to reassess the past, the more problematic” it could be, says Gordon. All of these risks and complications of office romance exist, whether people are sharing a desk or exchanging Slack messages from different post codes.

Despite these rules and potentially precarious situations, though, office romances willstill happen – and with all the psychological factors involved, it’s hard to blame colleagues for falling for each other. Still, it’s important for workers to be aware of the implications, no matter how relaxed their team may be, or how trivial ripple effects may seem. After all, not every office romance ends in forever – and there’s no fun in spotting your ex’s face on the grid during a Zoom call every day. -BBC