When Minneapolis native Char Steffes got assigned to a project in London for the advertising agency Fallon Worldwide in 2001, love wasn’t the first thing on her mind. But in a demanding, intensely social office–where open curvicles replaced walled cubicles, and where a night out meant hitting the pub with coworkers–she fell for Simon Roseblade, a 31-year-old copy editor.
We were working and playing hard together–70-hour weeks–and lots of mingling at agency functions, said Steffes, 32, an account director for Fallon. We didn’t hide it when we started dating. My boss was totally cool, and everyone got a big kick out of it.
After the couple dated for four years in London, Fallon facilitated Steffes’ and Roseblade’s return to the Minneapolis office. They now spend their days–and many nights at home–strategizing for the Citibank account Steffes manages.
For its part, Fallon was only too glad to reap the reward it bargained for: a 24-hour working arrangement that delivers dividends for all involved.
With round-the-clock relationships like Steffes’ and Roseblade’s on the rise, some companies are embracing the reality of workplace romance in the hopes of fostering a happier work force.
We have all the ingredients for office romance here, and we don’t discourage it, said Rosemary Abendroth, a spokeswoman for Fallon. It’s a group of artistic, passionate people working long hours together. It’s a beautiful recipe for magic to happen.
Experts attribute the shift to the changes born of the dot-com revolution. A generation ago, some employers took a more paternalistic, big-brother-like view controlling their employees, said Mark Oldman, cofounder of Vault Inc., a career research and consulting company that has had its own share of couples at work. The dot-com period loosened things up–in terms of work schedules, dress codes–and attitudes toward workplace romance became more flexible.
Most employers are choosing to adopt a policy of “benign neglect toward office relationships, according to Dennis Powers, a business professor at Southern Oregon University and author of The Office Romance: Playing With Fire Without Getting Burned.”
The top-down, “Leave It to Beaver” mentality of the 1950s doesn’t work anymore, Powers said. Some employers remain fearful of office relationships, but they happen regardless of what official policy says. And progressive companies tolerate them.
But as the number of long-term relationships grows, so do instances of unhappy endings. Company-sanctioned romance can lead to messy breakups or, even worse, costly harassment suits. Still, many human resources experts and attorneys argue that banning love at work is not the answer.
Fallon has moved to the forefront in its support of company-sanctioned romance–in a way that some might consider over the top. At its Minneapolis headquarters, employees are encouraged to play Ping-Pong, shoot pool or coast on a skateboard, all on the company clock. Outings to local bars after work are common. The necessity of having fun is one of the agency’s mantras.
In the Fallon environment, it’s no surprise that over the years, several long-term relationships have blossomed. Jessie Randall and Brian Murphy, a former Fallon account manager and a graphic designer, met in the New York office in 1999 and married in 2003. The couple now owns and operates the New York-based Loeffler Randall shoe company together.
They took pains to hire the right people: smart, cool and social, Randall said.
Spending so many hours with like-minded individuals at work seems like a recipe for creating relationships. Overall, nearly 60 percent of workers have had a workplace romance of some sort, up from 47 percent in 2003, according to a survey released in January by Vault Inc.
A stressful, demanding work environment can also lead to love. Serena Singh, 29, and Obid Naim, 30, are fourth-year psychiatric residents at a San Francisco hospital who worked alongside each other on the same hospital floor for several years, and recently became engaged. Naim rejoined Singh after spending a year at a New York hospital. Singh’s residency director in San Francisco realized it would be better for all concerned if the couple could be together, and offered Naim a position.
Singh acknowledges that working together has brought challenges–like dealing with Naim’s morning lateness and his tendency to pop into her office unannounced–but she said they’ve worked out most of the kinks. When things get stressful, I can just walk into Obid’s office and he’ll offer me a chocolate or play music, she said.
But the downside to office romance can prove more serious than unannounced visits. And some experts see a potential risk for companies in all this coziness.
Attraction at work can create good energy that helps productivity, but boundaries need to be drawn to keep it platonic, said Corey Jamison, president of Kaleel Jamison Inc., a career consulting firm in Troy, N.Y., who believes even long-term love should be kept out of the workplace. There’s too much room for trouble.
Doug Stone, 35, an advertising director at a cable television station in New York, has had two office romances in the last several years, neither of which worked out.
We worked the night shift together in the edit room and would sort of just goof off, he recalled. She’d call me afterward and ask me to come over. It was convenient for both of us.
Some nights, Stone and his colleague didn’t wait to leave the edit suite to begin their amorous activities. But then it was right back to work! he said.
Stone said he cut off the relationship after several months when he realized it could prove distracting. Weird triangles can develop and everything gets magnified in an office, he said. But what are you going to do about it? We all need love.
– Moira Herbst- Columbia News Service