Our drive to build and maintain interpersonal relationships is a major factor in human social behavior. It therefore comes at no surprise that this motivation also translates in the workplace, where employees form various bonds to satisfy their need for belonging. As the nature of the modern work environment often overlaps with our personal lives, this makes it hard to distinguish between work life and private life.
In this context, a different type of interpersonal workplace relationship has been prominently observed for many years: The "work wife", "work husband" or "work spouse". In fact, 63.3% of recently surveyed individuals, mostly from the United States but across six continents, affirmed they either currently or previously had a work spouse in a study carried by McBride, a professor of communication studies at Creighton University.
What is a work wife?
The concept of "work wife", "work husband" or "work spouse" has become increasingly common in the American workplace, and though it is hard to define, Marilyn Whitman, a professor of business studies at the University of Alabama explains that a work spouse is a platonic, intimate relationship between two colleagues that is characterized by high levels of disclosure and support, trust, loyalty, and respect. Sounds familiar?
"At first, it was the same as any other office friendship. You'd eat lunch together and joke around in your free time. It wasn't long before you both had an understanding of each other's issues at work. Through it all, you've developed a kind of language that only you two understand. You talk about your outside lives, but sometimes a look is all you need to get away from office dramas and understand what the other is thinking."
The “work spouse” phenomenon is not new and has been featured in many popular television sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, and movies like Law & Order, The Steve Harvey Show, and the biopic on Steve Jobs. Such portrayals of workplace relationships have therefore become an increasingly interesting field of study in communication, psychology, human and organizational behavior researchers to name a few.
The work spouse debate: Different generations, different perspectives
Still today, at the workplace, it is not uncommon for people to be more reserved when interacting with colleagues in order to maintain a professional atmosphere. While friendly behavior is not discouraged, it is often kept within the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate within the working context.
As more importance is given to topics such as inclusivity, gender equality and neutrality, transparency and benevolence, the concept of "work spouse" can help eliminate many of the stereotypes that once defined the workplace to become more accepted.
It is worth noting that a work spouse does not need to be of the opposite gender, nor does the relationship need to be exclusive; it does not indicate anything about the individual’s personal marital status.
A recent poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies for Newsweek revealed that opinions on work spouses varied among different generations. 21% of those surveyed said it was fine to have a work spouse, while 45% called it inappropriate. Millennials and Gen Zers seemed to be more on board with the idea of a work spouse, with just 39% and 40% respectively disapproving. Meanwhile, baby boomers, aged between 55 and up, could find benefits in being close with a colleague to maintain longevity in their job. Career experts suggest that millennials may be against the notion because many of that generation are likely more focused on starting and raising families than building in-office relationships.
It could be debated at length why intimate relationships between colleagues have been termed “work wife” and “work husband”. However, the fact remains that the use of such familial terms is widely accepted as it provides a familiar frame of reference for both those in the relationship and those observing it. Roy Cohen, a New York City career coach, suggested using the term "work partner" rather than "work wife" or "work husband" to stress the platonic undertone and to avoid potential conflicts.
Benefits of having a work wife
It has been argued that workplace friendships or "work wife" can bring a sense of security, support and respect. This can lead to a sense of vitality and connection that has an overall positive affect in the workplace, and this can lead to cooperation in completing job-related tasks. Having a "work wife" or "work husband" can bring many benefits to both the individual and the organization, in the following ways:
1. Having a work wife can be a powerful asset in navigating the workplace.
From gaining insight into the inner workings of a company and its culture to having a trusted confidante to discuss work-related issues and progress, a work wife can be a valuable partner in navigating the corporate world. With their help, you can better understand office politics and the organization’s culture and norms, be more confident in your job, and build stronger relationships with colleagues or be introduced to key individuals. Finally, having a “work wife” or “work husband” can also be beneficial in terms of career growth. They can help you identify opportunities for personal and professional development, offer advice on how to gain recognition for your work, and motivate you to stay on track.
2. Having a work wife can be a great sounding board for ideas.
Whether you need to brainstorm solutions to a problem or want to bounce around new ideas for projects, your “work wife” or “work husband” can give you an honest opinion and provide invaluable feedback, so you can make informed decisions. By listening to and considering their input, you get an outside perspective and can more accurately analyze the impacts of different strategies. They may offer unique ideas and assist you in identifying potential problems before they become major issues. Finally, they can be a useful resource for perfecting your work by telling you what’s working and where improvements can be made.
3. Having a work wife can be an invaluable source of moral support.
From providing encouragement during challenging times to offering honest advice, they can be a valuable source of comfort and reassurance. They understand the pressures and expectations of the workplace and can ease stress while helping you stay focused and motivated when times get tough. They will give emotional support, listen without judging, or simply provide the necessary distraction so you can take a break. It is worth mentioning that considering the nature of the relationship, they are also expected to provide perspective, put you back in your place when needed and remind you to take time for yourself.
4. Having a work wife can help you maximize your productivity.
Ideally, a “work wife” or “work husband” is someone who you can collaborate with and share ideas. The relationship can help bring out the best qualities of each person and assist in problem-solving, project planning, and workload management. You can also rely on each other to provide constructive criticism, discuss strategies and approaches for tackling difficult tasks, stay organized and on top of deadlines. Ultimately, you leverage each other’s strengths to work smarter, not harder.
5. Finally, having a work wife can make work more meaningful.
Having a companion to converse with and share your accomplishments and disappointments with can make work more rewarding. Their support encourages you to stay loyal and focused on achieving organizational goals. They can also provide a sense of accountability and achievement that can definitely impact your productivity and performance to the benefit of the organization and you, of course!
The future of work relationships
Similar to other forms of interpersonal relationships, individuals in the workplace look for a sense of safety as they form work relationships and progress in their jobs. They desire the security of having someone who comprehends their environment and can give assistance both emotionally and practically, without the stress of having to show off or carry out (as in a supervisor-subordinate relationship or a hostile peer-to-peer interaction).
Luckily for us, today’s work environment provides ideal conditions for forming these types of relationships as organizations have begun to switch to a team-oriented approach, which necessitates a more natural framework that encourages learning, exploration, sharing of information, openness, and decision-making on a horizontal level. To foster this natural structure, organizations have been transforming their work environment to facilitate human interaction and encourage socialization.
Researchers at Gallup have repeatedly confirmed a link between close working relationships and high organizational performance. The “State of the American Workplace” report found employees who feel a deep sense of affiliation with others on their team “are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business – actions they may not otherwise even consider.”
Moreover, building meaningful interpersonal relationships in the workplace has proven to increase team performance, better communication, and trust. These relationships can boost morale, reduce burnout, improve decision-making and have a positive indirect effect on individual job performance. Thus, organizations that prioritize cultivating and nurturing social support networks may be more successful than those that do not.
Though the advantages and disadvantages of “work wife” or “work husband” relationships have been largely debated in the popular press, organizations must decide whether to embrace such relationships, and if so, how to do it?