When John, a tech worker in San Francisco, matched with a beautiful brunette on a dating app in December, he had no idea that, by March, they’d be co-workers.
As their relationship added a new dynamic, they set ground rules: No flirty Slack messages or emails. John told his boss he was dating a co-worker, but because John and his girlfriend were not on the same team, or in the same reporting line, he didn’t have to disclose her name. (John and others in this article spoke on condition of first names only for professional privacy.)
When millions of Americans’ offices closed over a year ago, they got reprieves from long commutes, hard pants, micro- and macro-aggressions, and Arctic-level air-conditioning. Remote work also defused some of the land mines that used to surround office romance, allowing more relationships to blossom. Gossip, drama and awkwardness can still bloom on Zoom, but not as readily as when workers are in close quarters for 40-plus hours a week.
(Still, HR would also like us to remind you that some pre-pandemic rules remain: Do not date a boss or subordinate.)
Meeting online has replaced the old standbys of connecting through friends or colleagues as the most common ways couples find each other. But even in a pandemic, work remains a place where sparks fly. After all, it can be easier to meet someone with similar life goals and interests at work than while swiping on a dating app, says Stacy Notaras Murphy, a relationship therapist in Washington, D.C., who met her husband while both were working in the same office over 20 years ago.
“I have so many clients who struggle with the apps, Zoom dates and texting,” Notaras Murphy said, noting that meeting someone while in “date mode” can feel manufactured and inauthentic. However, “if you see someone at work,” she said, “that’s probably a better window into the type of person they are.”
COVID-19 has not put the kibosh on co-worker canoodling: A February 2021 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 50% of U.S. workers have had a crush on a colleague. One-quarter of U.S. workers either began a workplace romance during the pandemic or have continued one that began before offices around the country were shuttered. About a third, 34%, of workers have been, or are currently, in a workplace romance, up 7% from 2020.
“Often you hear that you should never date anyone you work with,” said Alison Green, who runs the work-advice blog Ask a Manager. But she thinks that’s unrealistic advice. It might be “easier to choose someone you don’t work with, but it’s not a disaster if it happens.”
If things do go south, well, you may not have to see your ex in the office for a very long time.
When John and his girlfriend broke up in July, he knew he wouldn’t bump into her at the water cooler the next day. “I’m most afraid of feeling the same heartbreak if I see her in the hallway and how that might affect my mood,” John said, adding that he thinks they’ll both “handle it professionally.” Last week, their company pushed its return-to-office from September to 2022. By then, hopefully they’ll have moved on emotionally — maybe even professionally as well.
Nicole, a nonprofit worker, is among those who started dating a colleague during the pandemic. So far, she and her boyfriend have avoided disaster. They became friends first, often co-working with other colleagues on Google Hangouts during the day and then hopping on the phone at night. Their chats would meander from work minutiae to Nicole’s impending move from California to Washington, D.C., to the Lakers, to Netflix and reality TV. “Gradually our talks got longer. Even though we had never met, we’d developed this rapport that was really fun and really natural,” said Zack, Nicole’s boyfriend. “She’s aggressively from Los Angeles in a similar way that I’m aggressively from New Jersey.”
One night, Zack texted Nicole that he had fallen on the steps to his English basement. She FaceTimed him to make sure he was okay. “That’s when I thought: There might be something going on here,” Zack said. (He bruised his hip, but was otherwise fine.)
When Nicole moved to Washington, D.C., in November, that work friendship moved beyond 9-to-5, with Nicole and Zack exploring the city together on weekends. One night, while watching the NBA Finals, they inched closer on the couch, eventually sharing a kiss. “I definitely had a little bit of pause just because we worked together so closely on so many things,” Zack said. “But by the time I started asking myself those questions, it was already done. I was fighting an uphill battle to suppress the very strong feelings that I had.”
While figuring out what their connection might be, they pledged to not tell their co-workers. “We didn’t want to complicate things by adding in more eyes,” Nicole said, now seven months into the relationship, which she considers to be an “accidentally beautiful” thing to have come from the pandemic.
Keeping that secret meant maintaining separate Zoom backgrounds while co-working from each other’s apartments and signing onto the same work meetings. They had a system: If they were at Nicole’s house, Zack would Zoom from her backyard; at his place, she’d log on from his front patio. While dating a co-worker can be a professional and personal risk, to them, the stakes seemed low. “When the pandemic makes the world so complicated … why not just not let this be so hard?” Nicole said of her thinking at the time.
“Logistically it was definitely easier, being in a virtual office. It would’ve been harder to maintain that level of secrecy if we were in an office,” Zack said. (They worked closely together as peers but were not required to disclose the relationship.)
In the age of virtual meetings, there’s less water-cooler talk and fewer happy hours. “Work has been stripped down to the actual work,” said Simone Stolzoff, author of the forthcoming book “The Good Enough Job.” One of the biggest things workers are lacking right now is a “sense of serendipity,” Stolzoff said, that in-the-office happenstance that chief executives tout as a secret sauce for brainstorming — and that also serves as a kind of social glue.
While colleagues might not be grabbing beers or an impromptu lunch, Stolzoff thinks existing working relationships — those within small teams like Nicole and Zack’s — might be strengthening during the pandemic.
“A lot of romance, for better or worse, is comfort. If you are single and you’re looking to find a partner, you might develop a connection with somebody you’re familiar with,” Stolzoff said. And sometimes, that familiarity is found in the office, virtual or physical.
When Nicole finally sets foot in the office, a year-plus into working for this organization and many months into a relationship, she and Zack will have never done the things most workplace couples do: Commute together, sneak out for an afternoon coffee or pop over to the other’s cubicle unannounced.
Just as they started to tell co-workers about their relationship, Zack left their organization and moved on to another job. When they did go public with their relationship, their co-workers seemed shocked, prompting Nicole to learn that classic lesson of adulthood: “People aren’t paying as much attention to us as we’re paying to ourselves.”
Now they’re just a couple who met at work, regaling one another with stories about colleagues new and old. “The longer we dated, the less work became a focal point in our relationship,” Nicole said.
At this point, they’ve met each other’s families and friends — and she’s started to miss Zack in the virtual office. “It was genuinely cool to get to learn so much from him as a co-worker and as a partner,” she said. “I’m going to miss that.”