Has the pandemic spelled the end of the office romance?
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With social distancing keeping workers away from their desks speculation is rife that the office romance is doomed. But is this really the case?
The answer, suspects East Anglian employee engagement expert Cassandra Andrews, is in fact “no”.
“It’s well known that a lot of people meet partners through or at work. With people not being in the offices this has meant that a lot of people we’d normally see on a day-to-day basis we haven’t been,” she said.
“But I actually think lockdown has had the opposite effect when it comes to office romance. Instead of people having conversations where people can overhear employees are able to form more meaningful relationships through digital conversations. Admittedly, this could be more within teams because we’re not necessarily chatting to people from other departments who we would bump into out of coincidence.
“Having said that – we’ve seen a lot of businesses doing ‘Furlough Arms’ work drinks on Friday nights over Zoom, so perhaps it’s seen people make a concerted effort to have conversations outside of our immediate bubble than we would otherwise.”
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However for some people having a romantic relationship with colleagues is prohibited.
“I think the issue for business would be firstly what happened if it went wrong, but also if it was between a manager and one of their reports. That could potentially bring up problems when it comes to other team members,” Ms Andrews said. “I’ve seen some instances – particularly in the construction industry – where family-run businesses employ three generations of people and their partners, as well as siblings and cousins, and it does cause problems now and again.” But these drawbacks appear not to outweigh the potential positives of having a more relaxed working environment.
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“Essentially businesses need to realise they’re employing adults – and so they should be trusted to behave and conduct themselves,” Ms Andrews said.
“When we look at motivation we know a lot of people are motivated by the relationships they form at work and feeling like they’re a part of something. They’re more likely to invest more time in the business, to show their loyalty and go the extra mile for a company that they feel they’re integral in.
“But if people feel like they’re not trusted by management then it can hold people back not only from enjoying their work but also from making the same level of commitment they might otherwise.
“There was a study done by the University of California which looked at the correlation between your personal relationship and how you feel about work. They each actively promote a more positive feeling with the other so it would make sense to try and support that.”
However some businesses do enforce this policy – but do employees stand to lose their jobs if their liaisons are uncovered?
Jeanette Wheeler, partner and head of Birkett’s employment team, said: “Having a relationship at work is a time-honoured way of meeting a future partner and would generally not in itself be a legitimate reason for an employer taking disciplinary action.
“However, many employers do have formal rules and policies in place to restrict individuals who are in a relationship from working closely together, particularly in a line management context. A formal workplace policy will usually set out expectations of behaviour and the circumstances when the employer would expect a relationship to be disclosed.”
Ms Wheeler, who works across the legal advisers’ offices in East Anglia including Norwich and Ipswich, added: “Employees may question why their employer is interfering in what they regard to be a purely private matter. Under the Human Rights Act 1998 they have a qualified right to respect for private and family life. But problems may arise if the relationship has an impact on other colleagues and/or jeopardises the employer’s legitimate business interests in some way.
“If this were the case an employer may be justified in seeking disclosure of a personal relationship at work in order to prevent potential conflicts of interest and allegations of nepotism/favouritism and could elect to take disciplinary action in circumstances where an employee has failed to disclose a relationship in breach of the employer’s policy.”
She added: “Once a relationship at work is known about, an employer can in some situations be justified in taking action to change any line management arrangements or impose more serious sanctions (even dismissal) if it can be shown that the relationship has resulted in any form of favouritism, a breach of confidentiality and particularly if allegations of work related discrimination or harassment are involved.
“Employers should not however jump the gun or act unfairly – relationships at work will not always or inevitably impact on someone’s role or ability to do their job or compromise their position or the employer’s legitimate interests.”