While many companies discourage romantic office relationships and have policies that prevent family members working together, there’s one form of employee relationship that delivers tangible benefits to the organization. The concept of a “work spouse” is becoming more common and less taboo. It’s important to establish exactly what a “work spouse” is and what it isn’t.
A work spouse is one coworker with whom you connect on a deep level. You may have experienced an immediate connection with them or share similar interests/perspectives. The relationship is likely very low maintenance in that there are rarely disagreements and there are low expectations for commitment. But what sets this particular relationship apart from other friendly coworker relationships is the loyalty between the “spouses” and the enormous positive impact each person has on the other. Even though the phrase “work spouse” conjures up images of a traditional husband and wife, there is very rarely a physical component to the relationship or even an attraction. The word “spouse” is used specifically because of how natural the relationship is. Outsiders may see a bond that looks unbreakable. They may believe the individuals have worked together for decades because they may be able to predict what the other person is thinking.
Finding a work spouse is a bit like capturing lightning in a bottle. There’s no dating process to find a work spouse or app to facilitate introductions. They either happen, or they don’t. But when a person does find a work spouse, the entire organization stands to benefit from the relationship.
Naturally, when an employee enjoys his/her coworkers, they have higher overall job satisfaction. Mundane or tedious tasks become tolerable when they’re completed with enjoyable company. Even when the task doesn’t involve teamwork, research shows just having a trusted confidant to vent to can increase not only job satisfaction scores but also overall work engagement and productivity.
The positive relationship can also be contagious. When work spouses boost one another’s morale, that means at least two members of the team bring a positive mood to the group. That means there are two fewer people in the room who isolate themselves, disconnect or display destructive behavior. In fact, when one spouse has a rough day and considers making poor choices to express their frustrations, it’s often the work spouse that protects the employee from their own actions.
Work spouses also help extend each other’s strategic network. They advocate for one another and work to ensure their spouse is seen in a positive light. They’re like covert PR agents in many ways. And because these relationships are so rare and impactful, the spouses are less likely to leave one another by accepting other job offers. Even though they may dislike the actual job or even the company, just having one deep relationship with a coworker can delay a resignation for years.
Other the years, I’ve seen incredible work spouse relationships that had a positive ripple effect throughout the organization. From the HR business partner who could identify subtle nonverbal behaviors that signaled a VP was on the verge of an emotional outburst (and subtly intervened to redirect the conversation) to a dynamic duo that were the perfect complement to each others’ strengths/blind spots. When a work spouse helps the other person bring their best self to work every day, everyone benefits.
Unfortunately, though, as with any relationship, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Occasionally spouses file for divorce. In the work context, this is a spouse who resigns from the organization. The split can take an emotional toll on the individual left behind and leave them at risk for disengagement or even depression and loneliness. Managers should be aware of work spouse relationships on a team and be proactive in addressing the issue if one spouse resigns.
Additionally, managers should also be aware of jealousy from other team members. If the work spouses have team members that feel excluded, or worse, if they believe they’re being overlooked for activities due to the tight relationship, then team morale will suffer. While two people may have strong bonds, all team members should feel equally important, appreciated, and visible.
Finally, as we stated before, work spouses rarely have a romantic component. So, there is usually no reason to be concerned about a possible conflict between a person’s work spouse and personal life spouse. However, not all romantic relationships benefit from implicit trust and emotional maturity. In rare instances of jealousy or perceived infidelity, a real-life spouse can cause conflict that spills over into the workplace because he/she is concerned about the appropriateness of the work-spouse relationship. When trust is low, perception can become reality. Again, when a manager perceives there could be a toxic relationship between the real-life and work spouse, it’s crucial to confront the issue and establish expectations of professional behavior from everyone in the office.