In the pandemic era of virtual or hybrid work, there’s little to no chance of running into that cute marketing guy in the lunchroom or stopping by the desk of the intriguing new hire.
Yet, workplace romances continue to flourish despite the lack of in-person contact. According to a new survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, one in three U.S. employees today is dating a co-worker – a 6-per-cent increase from before the pandemic.
“People are always going to seek connections in the workplace, and during COVID, many companies pushed their employees to be more intentional in connecting with their team,” says Olivia Pacanowska, a Toronto-based national business development manager at Actalent, a global engineering and science services company based in Maryland. “I think many people have formed stronger relationships during the pandemic.”
Some of these stronger relationships are bound to lead to romances, says Gurpreet Kaur Mann, a Toronto-based human resource consultant and career coach. With nowhere to go and not much to do outside of work during COVID-19 lockdowns, many Canadians turned to co-workers for companionship.
Technology has also made it easier to get up close and personal with a workmate.
“With channels like chat and Slack, it’s even easier to meet people at work and get into romantic relationships,” says Ms. Mann. “In a physical office, you might not even see people in different departments and, even if you see them, you might feel too shy to say anything. Whereas in a virtual meeting, you see everyone on screen and you can get on a side conversation to say ‘hi, how’s it going’ to someone you find interesting.”
It’s also easier to keep an office romance on the down-low in a virtual or hybrid workplace, away from curious onlookers who might notice that a certain pair of co-workers seem to be having lunch together all the time, Ms. Mann adds.
Cori Maedel, founder and CEO at The Jouta Performance Group, a Vancouver-based human resource consulting firm, says virtual or hybrid workplaces allow workers to see each other in new ways.
“When you’re meeting virtually, you see parts of people’s homes, and maybe their dog or cat comes into view during the meeting,” she says. “I think it’s great because for so long we were told, ‘don’t bring your personal side to work.’ But that’s who we are, and now we’re able to connect on a more personal level because we’re working from home.”
The hardships brought on by COVID-19 have also brought people’s positive traits to the surface, in some cases making them more attractive as romantic partners, says Michael Kerr, a workplace culture expert and public speaker in Canmore, Alta.
Over the last two years, many Canadians have gone above and beyond to help each other. Some employees have even acted in heroic ways to keep co-workers safe.
“In many companies, employees have had to step up, and as a result, the culture in these companies improved; people demonstrated more empathy and were checking in on each other,” Mr. Kerr says. “It’s only natural that some of these check-ins might lead to feelings of closeness and mutual attraction.”
But while a virtual or hybrid workplace may foster office romances, employees and employers need to remember that, online or otherwise, the fundamental principles still apply.
“Nobody should date someone who reports directly to them,” says Nancy Shapiro, an employment lawyer with Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto. “That’s a principle that should not be forgotten whether you have a physical or virtual workplace.”
Given that many virtual workplace romances start and even play out online, employers should consider updating their policies to account for how workers behave on company-owned videoconferencing and communication platforms.
For example, they might want to set boundaries on what employees say or write on these platforms, Ms. Shapiro says. It doesn’t mean prohibiting friendly and personal exchanges on Zoom or Google Chat but rather drawing a line when the conversation starts to get intimate.
“You might want to be clear that the company’s technology platform is for business-related and casual interpersonal communications only,” Ms. Shapiro says. “You wouldn’t want salacious conversations running on your side chats.”
These additional policies could be integrated into existing workplace harassment rules and social media codes of conduct, which companies should be updating each year as a best practice.
“In view of these studies that say office romances are up, it’s probably a good time to review those policies and put in statements such as ‘you should not be using our communication technology to flirt or ask a co-worker out on a date,’” Ms. Shapiro says.
However, Ms. Maedel says workplace policies – whether they pertain to office romances or other matters – have to make as much sense for the workforce as it does for the business.
A policy restricting communication on company platforms, for example, might not sit well with younger workers accustomed to carrying on all types of conversations across different online channels.
Workplace policies that require employees to disclose an office romance may also be less necessary – and likely less enforceable – in a virtual or hybrid workplace.
“Do employers really need to disclose if they’re working remotely and there’s no conflict of interest?” asks Ms. Maedel. “Do you as an employer really need to know if a relationship is taking place out of sight anyway and doesn’t affect the work? These are questions you need to ask.”
In the face of the so-called ‘Great Resignation,’ today’s employers need to be more flexible as they plan for a post-pandemic workplace. That flexible mindset should also allow for love in their virtual or remote offices, within common-sense parameters that protect workers and the business.
“I’m so hopeful that we as a society can learn from what’s happening and that going forward, we make wiser decisions for our employees and our organizations,” Ms. Maedel says. “If that means office romances blossom because people are more comfortable showing their whole selves at work, then let’s be open to how we can make it work.”