There is no doubt that it is less attractive to send a colleague a winking emoji through messages than to exchange a coy look over the coffee machine. Those fleeting interactions that once ignited office romances became impossible during the pandemic, when many went home to work. Despite this, workers have found a way to continue flirting with colleagues. It is a fact that suggests the inevitability of romance in the office or workplaces.
On the rise
February 2022 data from the US Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests workplace romance may have increased even when working from home.
A third of the 550 respondents responded that they started or maintained a relationship with a colleague during the pandemic, an increase of 6% from the days before the global health crisis.
The workplace is fertile ground for love and fleeting romance, yet many companies frown on peer matching as an HR nightmare. Experts say there are specific reasons why workers just can’t stop engaging with their colleagues. Even while isolated during a global health crisis.
Something as old as time
Even though it’s considered taboo, 75% of those who responded to the SHRM survey said it was okay for their colleagues to date each other. After all, half said they had liked a colleague at some point.
And while fraternization is a headache for many companies, romance between colleagues has been around for decades, if not centuries. “Even going back to the industrial age, there was already some discussion about people’s attraction to each other in the workplace.” Thus concludes Amy Nicole Baker, a professor at the University of New Haven, USA, who studies these phenomena and organizational psychology.
As early as the 1800s there were romantic interactions in the early days of white-collar work. It happened with women and men in the offices involved in “behavior that had no name”, according to critics of the time.
But many couples meet at work, and it doesn’t necessarily end in scandal (instead, it could lead to a fairy tale ending). Such is the case with the Obamas, who met at a Chicago law office when they were about 20 years old). Data from 2017 shows that one in 10 heterosexual couples in the US say they met at work.
Destined to happen?
Considering some data shows that people between the ages of 20 and 50 spend nearly four times as much time with colleagues as with friends, this seems bound to happen.
“It’s not surprising that so many people notice people at work.” Since working has been “taking up more and more of our time” over the years. This is the reflection of Vanessa Bohns, professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, USA, who studies the dynamics of romance between colleagues.
Although the most common methods of finding a partner fluctuate (more people meet via the internet, for example, and fewer people through family friends), those who find love at work make up “a constant” in the statistics, Baker says.
And in a pandemic?
That constant has lasted until the pandemic, a time when engaging with colleagues can 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 they adjust to remote work.
“As long as people are interacting in a shared work environment, you’ll see the basic mechanics of human attraction take place,” Baker says, whether the environment is physical or virtual. And the psychology behind that mechanic continues to inevitably push colleagues toward something else, even during a pandemic.
Intimacy and familiarity
The workplace is a prime site for two key drivers of attraction to develop, says Amie Gordon, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who studies the psychology of relationships.
Spending that much time with someone “could very likely pave the way for romance, because of all the factors that we know contribute to desire: intimacy and familiarity,” she says.
First, the more we see something (or someone), the more likely we are to like it. This trait of familiarity is a psychological bias called the mere exposure effect: “Just seeing someone repeatedly” can lead to attraction, says Gordon.
Similarly, research has shown that being in close proximity to someone for a long time can help stimulate a preference for that person. The more often we see someone physically and the more interactions we have with them, the faster interpersonal attraction builds. That bias could even apply to bosses who favor employees who spend more time with them.
Beyond physical closeness
But this bias is not limited to physical proximity. “It’s also an emotional closeness and an intellectual closeness,” says Baker. Whether it’s via email or Zoom, “they still interact with each other,” she says.
This constant exposure and interaction drives preference, regardless of physical location, which may explain why office romance has survived in the age of remote work.
Another factor that transcends a physical office is people’s preference for those similar to them, which could extend to work, considering that colleagues chose the same career and company.
“If they’re both lawyers, or if they’re both from the same background, or if they both think about the world the same way, that similarity will also foster rapport and understanding,” says Baker.
It’s inevitable, now what?
While office romance is virtually inevitable, and widely accepted, it’s still tricky. First of all, it can increase the risk of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, as well as creating conflicts of interest. More commonly, an office romance can also make the rest of the team uncomfortable and affect performance.
“Once someone on the team is in a relationship, so it’s not just a co-worker, that changes the norm in a way that’s uncomfortable,” says Bohns. “You don’t know what’s appropriate anymore.”
However, since office romance isn’t going away, some experts say smart companies will allow employees to date, while making sure professional lines aren’t crossed. “Managing it, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, is the best approach,” says Johnny C Taylor Jr, CEO of SHRM.
Weigh pros and cons
If you’re starting an office romance, experts urge you to think about your motives and weigh the pros and cons. If you are involved with a boss or a subordinate, they urge you to immediately disclose the relationship to Human Resources and request a supervisor reassignment.
But if you’re dating a partner, it’s up to you to tell someone beyond Human Resources. This is a situation that, according to Baker, most people consider less risky or problematic than dating someone with a different level of power. Know that the rest of the team is “going to figure it out,” says Taylor.
Baker feels that sooner rather than later that should be the focus; The longer someone waits to reveal a relationship, the more others will begin to “feel that something was hiding” and “react negatively”.
Despite these rules and potentially precarious situations, office romances will continue to thrive. And they will. With all the psychological factors involved, it’s hard to blame colleagues for falling in love with each other.
Still, it’s important for employees to be aware of the implications, no matter how relaxed the team is or how trivial the consequences may seem. After all, not all office romances end in happily ever after, and it’s no fun seeing your ex’s face on your everyday Zoom call.