washingtonpost.com
Significant Others at the Office
Work Spouse: Your Strictly Platonic, Cubicle-Sharing, Sentence-Finishing Colleague

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

When someone calls Julie Eyerman at work, Brad Mislow may be in the background, commenting on the conversation. And why not? They work together every day, and have for eight years, at a major advertising firm in New York.

In fact, they have become so much a part of the other's life that even though they are both married to other people, they call each other their work spouse.

You may share a cubicle or office with him. You may realize she finishes your sentences. You argue, you make up, you share confidences. You have inside jokes, you support each other, and you know the other one's real spouse's birthday.

This sort of work relationship has become so much a part of our lives that it has become part of our jargon. It has even been studied by the Gallup Organization. Conclusion: Work spouses (the platonic kind) increase productivity and heighten morale.

So where can I get me one of these? It's a natural thing, mostly.

The seeds of Eyerman and Mislow's "marriage" were planted almost a decade ago in graduate school for advertising. Mislow is a copy writer, and Eyerman is an art director. Eight years ago, they were hired as a team. Now, they're seen as one unit. BradandJulie.

They even fight like spouses. They see the same frustration, same facial tics. "You take on the real characteristics of a couple," Mislow said. "But there's not the baggage of the married stuff."

Some people wonder how they can survive work without their office spouse. They talk traffic when they get in; they discuss the kids' schools or dates gone awry. They cover for each other when a real spouse is home sick and needs help. And, of course, they push each other's work buttons and creativity. "What do you think of this idea?" "How should I handle this situation?" "Want to discuss our pitch together one more time?"

Could it be that this happens because we're spending more time at work? Is it because we see our co-workers for more hours than we do our families? Or is it simply that the nature of the workforce has changed and we're much more social and relaxed than workers of yore?

One answer may lie in the changing demographics of the workforce.

As a new generation of employees is entering the workplace, it is changing the way we work. Younger workers are looking for a network of friends at the office more than ever before, according to a survey of 2,000 workers by SelectMinds, a corporate social-networking company. Nearly half of the younger employees surveyed said the availability of support or networking programs for employees with common interests was a very important factor in their decision to join and remain with an employer, compared with 36 percent of their older peers.

The closeness that Mislow and Eyerman share might also stem from a survival sort of instinct, Mislow said. "We've been through bad economic times and good ones. We have meals together. We travel together. We're in strange hotel rooms."

"But different rooms!" Eyerman interjected.

And it's well documented that having a friend at work, or a work spouse, is good not only for morale.

"Having a work spouse is not only a good thing, but it might be a prerequisite for good work," said Tom Rath, global practice leader for the workplace with the Gallup Organization.

Having such a relationship means you'll be seven times more likely to be engaged at work, Gallup studies have shown.

"You're a lot more excited to show up to work in morning and more likely to get work done," Rath said. "A closer relationship increases speed in communication. Where people don't have that relationship, it might take 35 to 40 minutes to explain something. Having a work spouse is like talking in code."

The office spouse relationship stays platonic. However, there are times when workers become so close they land in an affair -- or a real marriage.

"There is always the potential that people will get too close in the workplace, that things will get romantic and go awry," Rath said. "But our research would indicate potential risks don't outweigh the benefits" of having a work friend or work spouse.

The chance of things turning romantic isn't so remote. In fact, a recent survey by online career site Vault.com found that nearly 60 percent of workers have been involved in an office romance, up from 46 percent three years ago. It's as if workplaces have become the new health clubs or bars for single people, said John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

But for most work spouses, what happens in the office is just . . . the office.

"Even if a real spouse gets jealous once in a while, it's better than coming home and complaining about work all night," Rath said.

So how do the real spouses feel about this? For one thing, they are happy BradandJulie have someone else with whom to discuss workplace minutiae. Mislow's wife and Eyerman have become good friends. His children call her Aunt Julie.

Any time Eyerman started to date a guy, she would tell him she had a work spouse. "I used it as barometer to see how they reacted about it. It's a good test of what kind of person they are. Some were jealous, some didn't care, some called Brad to hang out with him. My spouse said, 'Oh, I have a law school spouse.' "

It was true love.

Some managers have learned the benefits of close relationships like the office spouse. Jennifer Cortner, president of EFX Media in Arlington, realized that there was a lot of wisdom in "putting the right people together," she said. "I worked hard at that once I recognized that fact." (In full disclosure, she married her co-worker and they still work together. They did not consider themselves "work spouses.")

Some interesting relationships have been formed, she said. Because the firm relies on creativity, it is important to put the right people together because they are better at brainstorming, she said.

One of those people is Jagjeevan K. Virdee, the art director at EFX. She works with three others in her office, a foursome that naturally breaks down into two couples.

There was no way to avoid building close relationships. "We're together all day, every day. The office space is very, very tiny. It's probably the size of an average kitchen. That adds to the dynamic, too, because everyone can hear everyone else's conversations. We're always having a laugh."

Of course, she said, it's about the work. But without that closeness, the everyday spousal-type relationship, the work might not be as stellar, she knows.

The chance of having a work spouse depends on one's personality, Virdee thinks. "Some people can just put on a professional front and just consider the work and keep the personality separate," she said. But for Virdee? "That would make things a little more difficult."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company