The office romance is not the Gen Z preference. Should we mourn it? Not really. It only means we’re getting better at separating work and personal life, writes Eliza Flby
There are many things we can mourn about the shift to hybrid working, but can we say that the office romance is one of them? Partnerships, affairs and flirting were once, to varying degrees, a feature of office life – adding a certain frisson, touch of drama or even motivation to the drudgery of work. And for a generation of workers coming of age in the nineties and noughties who remember life before online dating, it was also the main way that people met their partners. Think Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (ok, maybe don’t).
In truth, the roots of the decline of dating co-workers can be traced back to the #MeToo movement which put a necessary spotlight on workplace relations. Given that most workplaces are built on hierarchies, it also put a big question mark over the social etiquette of flirting at work and the power dynamics that underscore many workplace relationships. The reassessment of a 22-year old Monica Lewinsky is a case in point.
But in today’s hybrid environment we are simply not together enough for those legitimate connections to happen.
I do know someone who had a work Zoom affair during the pandemic but they both emotionally logged off before they met IRL. In practical terms, office romances tend to operate in the context of overtime, alcohol consumption and solidarity through the high pressure or mundanity of work. With the next generation of workers, Gen Z, you have a cohort who prefer forging intimacy online (on dating apps you haven’t heard of), they drink less and they are prioritising work/life balance better than millennials did at their age, so is it any wonder that the office romance holds less appeal?
And that points to a deeper shift here. The decline of the office romance is a reflection of a greater separation being forged between our home life and our work life; a healthy realignment of the boundaries. We tend to assume that the pandemic brought our home life into our workplaces and that we are living in an era when employees want to “bring their whole self to work”. The truth is that people want to be able to express who they are because they no longer believe their job defines their personal character.
But is there anything to mourn here? As unromantic as it seems, not really.
The favouritism office romances tend to inspire and the tension it causes when it all goes wrong is probably drama that most of us would happily wish to avoid. I once worked alongside someone I dated and when we broke up I had to leave the organisation. Given more than half of work relationships end in breakup, that is perhaps a sobering thought in the context of the Great Resignation. But no one would advocate Blackrock’s zero-tolerance approach which has insisted that all employees should disclose any internal partnerships – and firing any that did not comply.
The decline of the office romance should instead be seen for what it is; the evolution of how humans are colliding. My grandparents met at a dance, my parents at a party, my cousins at university; for most of my generational peers, it was at work, not because it was a great place to meet your significant other but because it was where they spent most of their time and forged so much of their adult identity. My kids? They will probably meet their partners in the metaverse. Now that is a sobering thought.