The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it major changes to how and where we work. This includes massive upheavals within office culture — because let’s face it, as fun as it is making snarky comments to your coworkers in private Zoom chats during meetings, it’s not the same as having them there IRL. (Effective eye rolls, specifically, are now much trickier to pull off.)
For people used to relying on their work spouse — that platonic coworker whom they’ve come to count on for camaraderie and/or emotional support during the workday — this has been a particularly difficult transition. When you’re used to spending most of your day with a person who you not only enjoy being around, but who also completely understands all the quirks and drama specific to your workplace, their absence is a major adjustment. Here’s how to navigate that unique relationship during a pandemic.
Benefits and challenges of having a work spouse
While having a work spouse can significantly improve things for you at work, the relationships aren’t without their pitfalls. Let’s start with the good stuff.
Benefits of having a work spouse
In a 2017 survey by TotalJobs, 17% of respondents said that they had a work spouse, while 48% indicated that they have close relationships with multiple coworkers. And for the most part, their employers were on board, with 70% noting that they think it’s healthy for their employees to have someone to bond with and confide in at work. Other research has found that people with friendships at work are ultimately happier in the long run.
According to workplace culture experts at Good & Co., knowing someone has your back at work (and vice versa) could increase a person’s chances of surviving in a job:
Work spouses usually share similar values and have a mutual sense of trust in each other, creating a source of support, safety and empathic understanding. They often use humour to help each other cope with stress and put problems into context, keeping motivation high. Work spouses are more likely to look forward to work because of their relationship and tend to feel more confident and productive compared to those without strong relationships with colleagues.
Also, we should point out that right now, while everything is different and the days are all running together, having a work spouse — even remotely — can help bring some normalcy to your professional life. Only now, instead of quick catch-ups over coffee about the unreasonable thing your boss just did, these conversations can be moved to Slack.
Ethical challenges of having a work spouse
Of course, spending that much time with someone five days a week can make things complicated — even if the relationship is completely platonic — especially if one or both of work spouses have romantic partners in real life. The same survey from TotalJobs found that 31% of people were indifferent to their partner’s work spouse, while 16% said that their work spouse’s personality is similar to that of their partner.
A work spouse arrangement could get ethically dicey if any boundaries are crossed (or at least are perceived to have been crossed by a romantic partner). According to a 2018 survey conducted by Simply Hired, most Americans employees — 57% of men and 69% of women — have introduced their work spouse to their partner, which can make the relationship more palatable to their significant other.
And even if boundaries are never technically crossed, that doesn’t mean that attraction between coworkers won’t develop. In the survey — which appears to focus solely on cisgender male-female work spouse relationships in which both parties are heterosexual or bisexual — 84.4% of men said that they are at least moderately attracted to their work spouse, though that drops to 61.9% of women. (Of course, work spouses are not limited by gender or sexual identities.)
The key is to be open with your partner about your work spouse and what that relationship entails. Couples can have different interpretations of what constitutes “cheating” or having an affair, so, as is the case in most situations, it’s incredibly important to communicate with your partner about what’s going on with your work spouse (even if it truly is strictly platonic).
“Forging positive relationships with co-workers, as long as they stay within policy-respecting (and existing-relationship-friendly) boundaries, is essential to keeping things drama-free both at work and home,” according to the report accompanying the Simply Hired survey.
How to maintain a relationship with your work spouse during the pandemic
First of all, this is assuming that you want to keep up a work spouse relationship with a person. This may not be the case at all, and if that applies to you, take advantage of the new normal to put some literal and figurative distance between yourself and this coworker. Or perhaps you and your work spouse have become real-life friends and have been in touch this whole time (in which case, you’re all set). But if you’ve lost — and miss — regular contact with your work spouse and want to change that, there are a few ways to handle it.
Pick up where you left off
The most obvious method is simply picking up where you left off and continuing your workplace banter and support of each other virtually. And because you work together, you’ll always have that in common, and thus, there will always be an easy way to start a conversation.
Find new ways to meet up
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Lisa Bonos profiled several different work spouse pairs who have found effective ways to stay in touch. These include texting each other during Zoom meetings (and throughout the rest of the workday), playing Animal Crossing together, and meeting up for virtual happy hours, socially distant lunches and masked walks.
What to do if you’ve started a new job remotely
For those who’ve started new positions remotely, conditions may not be ideal for fostering work spouse relationships (or even friendships), but there are ways to get to know and check in with your new colleagues, Bonos reports. This can be something as simple as asking a new coworker how they’re doing, and then sharing some (work-appropriate) information about yourself, too.
Additionally, Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of “The Business of Friendship,” who was interviewed for the Washington Post article, suggests picking a few people you now work with and emailing them to see if they’re able to schedule a 30-minute conversation with you in the next week. “The goal isn’t to sit down and work on a project together,” she explains, “it’s to get to know each other.”