Strong bonds between pairs in the workplace can enhance performance and build more cohesive teams. But do the rewards outweigh the risks?
Who do you share your workplace gripes with? Who’s the person you go to for a laugh? Who knows about your insecurities and mistakes? It might be a partner or close friend, but many would also name a colleague.
When people form a special bond with someone in their workplace, it can have immense benefits; productivity gets boosted, morale is lifted and retention rates are increased. However, even though these aren’t amorous relationships, they can mirror some of the emotional aspects of a romantic partnership. So it’s also important to consider their risks.
Borrowing nuptial language
We don’t really have language to define the varying degrees of closeness we feel towards co-workers. There is no appropriate word to quantify the difference between a colleague you consider to be in your inner circle and one you make smalltalk with. That’s probably why we borrow nuptial language such as work spouse, work wife, work husband, a work marriage.
HRM previously reported on why work spouses are good for business, now we’re taking a deeper dive.
It’s thought the term ‘office wife’ was commonly used in workplaces of the 1930s, although this was usually reserved for females working in administrative roles, performing subordinate ‘wifely duties’. In 1987, journalist David Owen wrote a column, Work Marriage, for the Atlantic. He used the terms ‘work wife’ and ‘work husband’ and so redefined these relationships from a place of subservience into a mutually beneficial connection between two colleagues.
There are different experiences of these relationships, but common characteristics include deep levels of trust in each other, sharing intimate parts of personal lives and being able to anticipate the other person’s needs.
Though Owen’s column says a work marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, the concept has evolved since then. Work spouse relationships don’t have to be heteronormative. One paper on the topic, from Creighton University in Nebraska, found that 15 per cent of work spouse relationships weren’t between a straight man and a straight woman. But those that are often have to justify their bond in a way that same-sex pairings don’t.
Approaching these relationships with maturity is key, says Stephen, a former fly-in-fly-out worker who had a ‘site wife’ (a term given by his actual wife). When he worked in a small and isolated mining site, having a sense of community was crucial. He was also really close with two of his male colleagues, jokingly coined his ‘work boyfriends’ by other colleagues, but it wasn’t as deep a connection.
“My relationship with my site wife was just a little more serious. I felt a little more comfortable to share emotional stuff with a female friend.”
Research suggests Stephen isn’t alone. Men tend to be more open and intimate with their female work friends as they gain more interpersonal rewards, such as security, from women.
The paper Friendships of Women and Men at Work: Job satisfaction and resource implications, in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, also found that having a close connection with a male in the workplace, as a man or a woman, often led to a higher salary, but could also cause more tension and lower job satisfaction levels.
The researchers suggest this could be because more is at stake when entering into a close relationship with a male, as they often wield more power at work, and therefore anxiety around losing this relationship (and potentially a salary bump or promotion) could be greater.
A new approach
HR leaders might be inclined to think workplace friendships should be outside their purview. If nothing romantic is going on, no rules are being broken, so why should HR professionals get involved? Well, it seems that focusing on pairs in a team-building context can really work to an organisation’s advantage.
According to a recent study from the University of Sydney, traditional company-wide team-building approaches – like a day of puzzle-solving and trust falls – are not as effective as creating strong bonds between pairs.
The researchers, associate professor Julien Pollack and associate dean (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Petr Matous, talked HRM through their study.
Working in a single organisation, they applied the social network analysis framework, which is commonly used to measure the relationship between people and organisations, to identify communication gaps within a recently merged team that wasn’t communicating effectively.
Using a survey, they measured how people felt about their colleagues. They didn’t directly ask “Do you like so and so?”, but more nuanced questions such as, “If you made a mistake at work, who would you speak to about it?”
“We haven’t always had exposure to every other person in our workplace, so we don’t always know who could help us to do our jobs better, or who we could go to if we’re having a difficult time at work or in our personal lives,” says Pollack.
Next, they identified critical pairs in the organisation and, for those who opted into the experiment, asked them to answer 36 specific questions together. The subject matter was deeply personal, and included questions such as “How close and warm is your family?”
These questions were pulled from the work of psychologist Arthur Aron, who crafted them in 1997. They had a popular resurgence in 2015 when a viral New York Times article sparked the ‘Fall in love with a stranger by answering these 36 questions’ movement.
The idea of posing such intimate questions to a colleague might sour you on an experiment like this, but Pollack and Matous found them to be effective.
“We wanted to understand the underlying network of a well-functioning group. We found that a poor relationship between two people could be paralysing the whole organisation. Sometimes the poor relationships were due to a lack of opportunity to connect rather than some kind of animosity between the pair,” says Matous.
The researchers weren’t trying to strengthen existing strong pairs – those we’re calling ‘work spouses’ for the purposes of this article – but rather improve the cohesiveness of a workplace through the creation of new relationships between pairs.
“Not everyone was comfortable answering the questions. But interestingly, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the process, people’s overall relationships still improved,” says Pollack.
Returning to the organisation three months after the experiment, they found that those who had taken part in the experiment had much higher comfort levels when talking about personal matters at work (improving 1.9 points on a 10-point scale) than those who hadn’t (0.07). These conversations were also much more frequent, moving from ‘not in the last month’ to ‘once a week’.
“I was experiencing so much emotional stress at the time. If I hadn’t had his support, as well as the wider support of my organisation, I would have had to leave my job.” – Karen*
This brings us back to work spouses. While some HR professionals might baulk at the idea of encouraging people to become closer than the average pair of colleagues, there are reasons to consider it.
Matous and Pollack say research has shown that the sense of psychological safety offered by close colleagues plays an essential role in overall team performance and innovative thinking ability.
The benefits don’t end there. Research from the National Business Research Institute suggests that having a work ‘best friend’ does wonders for employee engagement. It found that those with a close work friend reported engagement levels of 56 per cent, versus 8 per cent for those without one.
Work spouses can also have positive knock-on effects for others in the organisation, boosting morale, encouraging camaraderie and helping to fight toxic cultures.
HRM conducted its own research on work spouses, collecting responses from 275 readers. Eighty-five per cent said they’d had a work spouse at some point in their careers. The main benefits were having someone they could trust (90 per cent), someone to have fun with at work (80 per cent) and having someone to make them feel less lonely (40 per cent).
Interestingly, some people also said their work spouse was the reason they stayed with their organisation (39 per cent). This was certainly true of one respondent, Melissa, a Hobart-based pre-employment screening specialist. Speaking about a former role, she said that before she became close with her work husband, she sometimes felt lonely and left out.
She was the new employee, and the existing cliques were tight-knit. It wasn’t until she moved into the same office as her work husband, and their friendship cemented, that her negative feelings dissipated. Melissa says her confidence to socialise and speak up in meetings skyrocketed.
The support from their mutual manager also helped to make the relationship work.
“Our boss was always very encouraging of us having a close friendship. She didn’t think of it like, ‘Those two are getting along a bit too well, I should separate them so they get more work done.’ She could see the benefit. We were much more productive because we were happy together,” says Melissa.
“Most jobs are interesting to begin with, but can become a little mundane. You start thinking, ‘How much longer do I want to do this for?’ And you start looking for new opportunities. But the thought of not being able to work with him every day sort of kept me there. I knew it was a unique relationship and thought if I moved on to a new job, I might not have that kind of connection at work again.”
Melissa and her work husband ended up leaving the organisation at the same time. They now both work from home, but still stay in touch most days.
“The relationship is certainly different now, but I still consider him one of my best friends.”
“Most jobs are interesting to begin with, but can become a little mundane. You start thinking, ‘How much longer do I want to do this for?’ And you start looking for new opportunities. But the thought of not being able to work with him every day sort of kept me there.” – Melissa
Another argument for why these workplace relationships are beneficial is that people often feel they are stronger together.
“Humans are communal by nature,” says Stephen. “Having a work spouse allows people to optimise what they do. In a professional sense, getting two very technically minded, intelligent people together achieves better results. You’ve only got to look at the winners of the Nobel prizes for science and economics, which now have multiple winners, to see that.”
Walking a fine line
For all their benefits, close friendships at work do present real risks.
Researchers for a 2015 study from the University of South Mississippi, My Confidant, My Coworker: the interpersonal relationship of work spouses, found that a common theme for these workplace bonds was a sense of exclusivity. Respondents felt their colleagues were jealous of their relationship, which could lead to unhealthy exclusion and unhelpful competition between staff.
Also, while Melissa’s story shows these friendships can help to retain staff, they can also have the opposite effect when one of the spouses leaves the organisation. Many respondents said they’d consider handing in their resignation if their work spouse decided to quit.
The paper also found that work spouses were usually very emotionally attached to each other. Many likened their work spouse to a family member. And while it’s easy to see how this could have some short-term benefits, things could unravel quickly if the relationship suddenly soured.
This attachment also proved to be a productivity issue. Many participants said they shared in their work spouse’s distress.
“I would say we influence each other – either positively or negatively. If she is struggling emotionally, that will impact my emotional status and vice versa,” was how one participant described it.
But the biggest risk is to professionalism. This isn’t just shared jokes about the workplace’s faults or the foibles of its leaders. Some respondents admitted to showing favouritism towards their work spouses. Others said that due to their closeness, normal workplace disagreements were amplified and trivial matters were often catastrophised.
Surviving tough times
Despite the risks, there is perhaps nothing so powerful as someone we can truly rely on at work. This was the experience of Karen*.
Years ago, she went through an immense personal tragedy just 18 months into a new role as the general manager of an organisation. After battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer, her son died. She says what helped her through this trauma was a close friendship she formed with the then deputy chair of the organisation (he’s now a board member).
“My son’s diagnosis was very sudden. We initially thought it might be a treatable cancer. But within a couple of days we were told that it was untreatable and that he was going to die. From the night he was diagnosed, I needed to be absent from work for a couple of weeks. I rang the chairman at the time and advised him. His response was essentially, ‘Will you be in the office tomorrow?’ He later apologised for this.
“But when I called the deputy chair [her soon-to-be work spouse], his response was just full of empathy. I still remember that many years later.”
The man took it upon himself to be Karen’s ‘person’ at work, checking in on her and helping when she needed it most. He was her shoulder to cry on – metaphorically and physically – and over the years of their friendship, she’d pay back the support to him.
“When my son died, I said to [my work spouse] that I wouldn’t have managed without him, for two reasons. Firstly, my actual husband was going through what I was going through too, and everybody grieves differently. And secondly, it gave me an outlet at work.
“I was experiencing so much emotional stress at the time. If I hadn’t had his support, as well as the wider support of my organisation, I would have had to leave my job.”
Given her experience, you might think Karen believes organisations should try to foster work spouses. But she’s conflicted. Just because she’s benefitted from one, that doesn’t mean she’s an advocate. The success of these relationships, she says, depends on context.
Her circumstances, tenure, the workplace culture she helped to create, and the fact that her ethics and values were laid out on the table, meant there was no question of her and her work husband being too close.
“We’re in our 50s. It’s a different relationship at that age. If I had been 35, there might have been some sexual undertones… they probably would have been overtones. My neurons aren’t firing in the same way they used to,” she laughs.
The important thing, she says, is that work spouses aren’t a substitute for something that’s emotionally absent in your personal life.
“I’ve been married for over 30 years in a fairly solid, stable partnership. I wasn’t looking for something that was lacking in my relationship, and maybe that’s the key to making the workplace relationship work. You’re not trying to satisfy a need that’s not being met elsewhere in your life.”
Considering that the success of these relationships is determined by their context, Karen says it’s really hard to say “It’s good to have a work spouse because it helps with teamwork” because it’s really much more complex than that.
From an HR perspective, you can choose to foster or ignore close work relationships. But trying to eliminate them altogether might be a futile exercise. Deep connections between pairs will be present in every workplace, as humans are naturally inclined to seek them out. And for every pair who smudge professional boundaries, there’ll be another that brings out the best in staff. Like any friendship, they can be messy, but they also have the ability to change lives for the better.
*Name has been changed to protect interviewee’s identity.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
Emotionally intelligent leaders have a positive effect on their organisations. Give your leadership team the right tools with Ignition Training’s short course.