Love is in the Air...and in the Office

Ah, the joys of workplace romance - where you can simultaneously navigate spreadsheets and heartstrings. But let's face it, mixing business and romance can be a slippery slope. While there are certainly risks involved (cue the cringe-worthy breakup conversations in the break room), there can also be some pretty sweet rewards - think office-wide displays of affection and sneaky lunchtime sessions.

So, in this issue, we're going to explore the ins and outs of workplace relationships - from how to navigate them without getting fired or your heart broken, to the potential upsides (hello, networking and increased job satisfaction!). So grab your coffee and let's dive in.

According to SHRM, One out of four (24%) employees reported they have been or are currently involved in a workplace romance. 43% of HR professionals reported current incidences of workplace romance at their organizations.

The office isn't just for work, it's for werking it. Spending most of our day with colleagues creates a breeding ground for romance. Human attraction is like a virus that spreads faster than a meme in a group chat, whether we're sharing a physical or virtual space. Let's break down the reasons why office romance is alive and well.

The power of attraction

In the workplace, sparks of attraction can fly faster than a rogue stapler in a chaotic office. Regardless of whether you're virtually or physically present, you're bound to interact with your colleagues regularly. The basic mechanics of human attraction stem from two factors: intimacy and familiarity.

Jasmine*, Manager at a Y-Combinator-backed startup told us “I met my husband while we were both working, and I actually hired him for a different position. We eventually started dating, but we kept it professional at work and didn't tell anyone. We had an unspoken agreement to not talk about work-related things to maintain confidentiality. We got married after five years, and many people were surprised because they didn't know we were dating. I think it can be tricky to manage relationships, especially for introverts who may not have many options outside of work to meet people.”

(*Name changed for privacy)

The familiarity effect

The more you see someone, the more you like them. This is a psychological phenomenon known as the mere-exposure effect. It means that just seeing someone repeatedly can make you feel more drawn to them. This effect can also apply to physical proximity. The more often you see someone in your vicinity, and the more interactions you have with them, the faster you develop a preference for them. This could explain why some bosses favor employees who show up more often. But physical proximity is not the only thing that matters. Emotional and intellectual proximity can also play a role. Whether you communicate via email, Zoom or Slack, you are still interacting with your colleagues and getting to know them better.

The intimacy effect

The more you interact with someone, the more intimate you become with them. This is another psychological phenomenon that can foster attraction. It means that sharing personal information, opinions and feelings with someone can make you feel closer to them.

The We-Ness Phenomenon

This chemistry can be magnified when people tackle a problem together. Think about all the common workplace stressors. You have crises that come up: it could be a toxic boss, the logistics of the job, long hours, or intense work when colleagues work together as part of a team to overcome challenging situations, it can create a sense of shared accomplishment and a bond of "we-ness." Whether it's weathering a long and difficult all-nighter or navigating a difficult client interaction, the act of facing and overcoming adversity together can create a deeper connection between colleagues. This can then foster a stronger sense of attraction and a potential for romantic relationships to form in the workplace.

The office romance is not dead. It is just evolving with the times. Whether you work from home or in an office, you are still exposed to potential romantic partners among your colleagues. And the psychology behind attraction keeps nudging you towards them, even during a pandemic.

So, if you are looking for love at work, don’t lose hope. You may find it in the most unexpected places.

The Risks of Workplace Romances

Ah, the allure of a workplace romance – the thrill of finding love in a professional setting, the excitement of stolen glances, and secret rendezvous in the copy room. But before you dive headfirst into an office relationship, remember that it comes with its fair share of risks. Here are a few different perspectives on why workplace romances can be tricky:

The "HR nightmare": From a company's perspective, office romances can be a nightmare for HR. When a relationship ends badly, it can lead to drama, gossip, and even lawsuits. Not to mention, if the couple is in a supervisor/subordinate relationship, it can create a power dynamic that's difficult to navigate. So if you're thinking about dating a coworker, make sure you're aware of your company's policies on office relationships.

Jasmine* mentioned “In my experience, the level of personal conflict in a workplace relationship depends on the couple. My husband and I were able to keep things professional and didn't discuss work-related issues. I was working closely with leaders at that time, it was sensitive. So that never happened.”

The "awkward encounters": Even if you're not breaking any HR rules, a workplace romance can lead to some seriously awkward encounters. Imagine running into your ex in the break room every day, or having to work on a project with them after a messy breakup. It can make it difficult to focus on work and create an uncomfortable atmosphere for everyone involved.

The "what if it doesn't work out?": No one goes into a relationship thinking it's going to fail, but the reality is that most relationships do end at some point. When you're dating a coworker, the stakes can feel even higher – what happens if you break up and then have to see them every day at work? Will you be able to handle it maturely, or will it turn into a messy situation?

The "too much togetherness": Finally, let's not forget that spending all day with your partner at work can be a lot of togetherness. It's important to have your own separate lives and interests outside of work, and that can be difficult to do if you're constantly in each other's company. Plus, if things go south in the relationship, it can feel like you're trapped in a never-ending cycle of work and drama. Jasmine* mentions “My husband and I were able to manage our workplace relationship by separating our personal and professional lives. We had clear boundaries and didn't bring personal issues to work. This allowed us to focus on our tasks and avoid any conflicts or overlap between our personal and professional lives.”

Conflicts of interest: If two employees in a romantic relationship are working on the same project or competing for the same promotion, it can create conflicts of interest that affect the quality of their work.

Gossip and drama: Office romances often become the subject of office gossip, which can be distracting and damaging to morale. It can also create awkward situations when the couple breaks up or when one of them gets promoted.

Accusations of favouritism: Even if the couple is able to maintain a professional relationship at work, others may perceive that they are receiving preferential treatment or special privileges, which can lead to accusations of favouritism.

Keeping it Private: With social media and the prevalence of workplace surveillance, it can be difficult to keep a workplace romance private. This can lead to unwanted attention and scrutiny from colleagues and managers.

Legalities: In some cases, workplace romances can lead to legal issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. Employers have a legal responsibility to protect employees from these types of behaviours, and workplace romances can create a risk of liability.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How Employers Can Help Navigate a Workplace Romance Fallout

Workplace romances are a common occurrence, and sometimes they don't end well. As an employer, it's important to have a plan in place for how to handle a workplace romance breakup. Here are some ways employers can help their employees through this difficult situation.

Have a policy in place

According to SHRM, more than one-half (54%) of organizations do not have a written or verbal policy that addresses workplace romance. However, in 2013, an increasing number of organizations (42%) indicated having a written or verbal policy compared with 2005 (25%).

Before a workplace romance even begins, it's important for employers to have a clear policy on how to handle such situations. This policy should outline what is and isn't acceptable behavior in the workplace and how to handle a breakup. It's essential to communicate this policy clearly to all employees so that they are aware of the expectations.

Offer support

Going through a breakup is never easy, but it can be especially challenging when it involves a coworker. Employers should make sure that their employees have access to resources and support to help them through the process. This could include offering counseling services or allowing employees to take time off to deal with the breakup.

Jasmine says “To promote a positive culture around workplace relationships, it's crucial to ensure that work is not impacted. Leaders and managers should believe in the idea of workplace relationships and educate their employees accordingly. Reinforcing policies and creating awareness around them is also important, with positive messaging that encourages employees to feel comfortable disclosing their relationships. Confidentiality should be reiterated in all communication to provide a safe environment.”

Keep it professional

It's important to maintain a professional work environment after a breakup. Employers should remind their employees to treat each other with respect and professionalism, even if they no longer have a romantic relationship. It's also a good idea to consider separating the employees involved temporarily, to help them move on and prevent any awkwardness.

Be understanding

Breakups can be emotional and challenging, and it's important for employers to be understanding of their employees' feelings. Employers should try to be supportive and empathetic, while also maintaining a professional relationship.

According to SHRM, The most frequently reported consequence was a transfer of an employee involved in a workplace romance to another department (34%) and counselling (32%).

Template for Workplace Relationship Policy - by Springworks

Do you want to feature in one of the issues? Email janhavi.jain@springworks.in or DM @janwhyy on Twitter.