~ August, 2021 ~ Over the course of a lifetime, the average worker in Britain could spend anywhere upwards of 3,500 days or 90,000 hours (depending on which metric or study you find less bleak) at work. That is a large chunk of your life. So while your job may not define you, as Pulitzer-winning writer Annie Dillard said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
It is no surprise, then, that the workplace is not only an environment for working, but spawns other pillars of a life well lived – friendship, drama, and maybe even romance. Popular culture is fascinated by the office affair, from the universally adored Jim and Pam (The (US) Office), to the cautionary tale of Tom and Summer (500 Days of Summer), and the painfully inappropriate “Is skirt off sick?” interactions of Bridget and Daniel (Bridget Jones’s Diary). The water cooler even brought together Selling Sunset’s Chrishell and Jason.
This isn’t just the stuff of fanciful fiction, Hollywood estate agents and American presidents (the Obamas met while working at a law firm in Chicago). Up and down the UK, work is historically a popular place to meet a partner. Estimates of exact numbers vary, in part because such things are often kept secret, but also because the spectrum of what qualifies as a “romance” can be vague: while 66 per cent of British workers admit to having had a “romantic relationship” at work, a separate study found only 22 per cent had met a partner at the office. Whether the lines between professional and personal blur for one night only or a little longer, it is happening.
Kim Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office (2015), a non-fiction look at women’s experience of the workplace, says: “The traditional workplace has all three of the main factors that lead to attraction. The first is similarity – [we’re] attracted to others similar to [us]. The second is proximity, so having physical proximity in a workplace helps people meet. The third thing is familiarity. We tend to be more attracted to those we see frequently.”
This is true not just of relationships born of work, but also of infidelity. “[Cheating] again comes down to opportunity – if you are spending more time with a colleague than you are at home, [and] seeing them when you are probably at your best, not last thing at night or first thing in the morning,” says Relate therapist Peter Saddington.
But over the last decade, office love has been on the decline. In 2017, 11 per cent of people met their partner at work compared to 19 per cent in 1995, according to one study. While only 2 per cent of people were dating online 26 years ago, compared to 39 per cent in 2017.
New options such as online dating have come into play, and become less taboo, in tandem with stricter HR policies (particularly post-MeToo), such as those at McDonald’s, which saw chief executive Steve Easterbrook removed after an affair came to light; those at investment giant BlackRock, which reportedly regulate relationships outside the office as well as within it; or Facebook’s somewhat unusual approach, which allows employees to ask out a co-worker once: if they are turned down, they cannot ask again. If office romance wasn’t already in decline, thanks to a combination of Tinder and the threat of being fired, the last 18 months have surely only accelerated the trend.
Since the advent of the pandemic, and the wholesale move to homeworking for many white-collar workers, there is a distinct absence of opportunity. Long gone are spontaneous pub drinks, awkward shared-lift moments, or flirting in the communal kitchen. Yes we have Zoom, but there is nothing less sexy than the phrase “You’re still on mute”.
Elsesser says remote co-workers are missing the two factors of proximity and frequency, which suggests romance would be less likely. “We are far less likely to meet people [we] don’t directly work with,” she says. “So yes, I would say remote workers will miss out on some potential romances.” Dr Amy Baker, from the University of New Haven, who has written extensively about office romance, agrees. “Since we are not interacting face to face as much as we did pre-pandemic, workplace romances may be less common.” But Baker does not believe romance has completely vanished from our professional lives.
It has been suggested that while overall, romances have been less frequent, there has been a change of tack in some instances. Rebecca Chory, professor of management at Frostburg State University, USA, and author of a paper titled Personal Workplace Relationships, explains that romance has simply found other ways to happen, via DMs and texts. “Covid [has] reinforced the work-life blending trend: rather than inhibiting workplace romances, remote working may facilitate them, as people tend to be less inhibited about expressing themselves over texts, emails, or online. It may be easier to flirt or reveal romantic feelings to a co-worker.”)
This does mean that any flirting that takes place from the comfort of home has had to be more deliberate. But if we’ve spent lockdown privately flirting, can we expect to see another change as we slowly filter back to the office?
Research has found that the number of staff in the office since 19 July, when the working-from-home order was lifted by Boris Johnson, has only risen marginally to 11.7 per cent, from 11.1 per cent before the guidance changed. Multiple studies have shown employees would favour spending between two and three days a week in the office and the rest of the time at home.
Chory believes that such a flexible future could actually see an “explosion” of office romance, and innovative ways of connecting. “We may see that people are so happy to be out of the house and mixing with others, whom they can physically touch and see and hear, that workplace romances explode.” Relationship therapist Lucy Beresford agrees. “We are still hardwired to find other people attractive. We could fancy more people on the commute days we do go in, [which could] ramp up intrigue and excitement because we’re not going to see people five days a week.
“So much of intimacy and sex happens in our heads [now that we have] more time fantasising. It could amplify it. Your projections and fantasy of that person – with five days a week, eventually [you would] see them in a bad mood, on a bad hair day or coping with a crisis,” she adds. Beresford also believes people will get more creative, and use opportunities like business trips to make their move on a co-worker or act on a long-held Zoom crush.
“Colleagues might put more effort into meeting up outside,” says Saddington. “There will be pressure from the workforce to have meetings and this will provide some opportunities. But there will be an increase in people exchanging phone numbers and talking more.”
This could of course create its own problems, including a boom in harassment, with the lines between work and personal lives blurred even further than is already the case. Elsesser says: “Co-workers may also be less likely to flirt electronically, because it leaves evidence of breaking rules,” if their company forbids relationships. Although she caveats this by saying some research shows that forbidding romance only makes it more attractive: “Think Romeo and Juliet.”
Ultimately, experts say there will always be an element of romance in workplaces because they continue to bring together like-minded people – similar educational background, similar passions, similar geographic location. “As a result, there has already been some form of selection to get you into that space,” says Beresford. “The difference is that people [will be] prepared to play the longer game, and this could have advantages with people wanting to take their time.”
So while the office might not quite be finished in its role as a place to find that special someone – or just sex – the last 18 months have seen the type of interaction we experience change, so that it requires motivation and proactive behaviour to initiate a relationship, rather than bumping into someone at after-work drinks or in the canteen – as well as moving onto new platforms that can both heighten the excitement of flirtation and distance people from the consequences if it goes wrong.