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Remote work romances: Are employees hooking up over Teams?

(Yes we know; 6 days from the 14th and we're writing a blog about office romance. We're just one big cliché with pink hearts and we're proud of that!)

Workplace romances have always been part and parcel of the world of work, in every office, factory, hospital and supermarket. But, many modern businesses have policies in place to prevent romantic entanglements between co-workers. 

And, while this hasn't entirely prevented employees from trying it on with their work crushes, the social restrictions of lockdown have made dating in the traditional sense much harder. 

But we also live in a time where dating and hookup apps are becoming more prevalent than traditional means for many, and the tools to emulate face-to-face contact have never been better. 

So, are dreams of remote work romance doomed to be crushed, or do all the LinkedIn Lotharios out there have reason to hope?

The popularity of office romance

If the plots of every workplace-based sitcom from the last three decades are anything to go by, the idea of finding romance at work is an extremely common one. So, despite how much your business's HR department might protest, it's almost inevitable that some of your employees are going to be tempted by an office romance at some point.

But how inevitable is it? 

According to a global survey by Monster from 2018, nearly 40% of respondents believe a workplace romance would harm their careers and would not engage in it if given the opportunity. 

However, more than one in four reported that they did not believe it would be harmful and would be open to pursuing such a relationship. 

On top of that, just under a fifth believe workplace romance could harm their career but would be open to pursuing such a relationship regardless. 

This suggests that at least 46% of employees are willing to engage in workplace romances, and highlights the prevalence of them in the more "normal" times prior to COVID-19. Our guess is that given the opportunity that 46% would in truth push 50% or higher too. 

So, the question is whether remote work romance will prove to be as popular as time goes on, or will they become a non-issue?

The role of company dating policies

While far from being universal, it's extremely common for businesses to have specific rules in place for dating colleagues. Some organisations forbid workplace romance of any kind, while others only take issue if a manager is dating someone below their level of authority.

It's the relationships between managers and employees that tend to be the most problematic. This is largely because of the imbalance of power involved. 

When this sort of workplace romance rears its head, it can be hard to identify from an HR standpoint whether the relationship was coercive or not. There's always the possibility that the employee doesn't feel like they can decline their boss's advances for fear of reprisal. They might fear losing their job or having their long-term career development sabotaged. It's this sort of behaviour that has been condemned in recent years by the #MeToo movement.

Or the employee might be dating their manager in order to get ahead. 

These quid pro quo (or, perhaps more accurately, tit for tat) arrangements can muddy an otherwise transparent company culture. 

Sure, someone dating their boss could well be harmless, but if they get put up for promotion, or keep getting all the best projects, then it's going to be hard for their colleagues not to suspect foul play. 

Even the impression of a lack of transparency can be devastating for employee engagement and productivity.

What the surge in dating app usage means for remote work romance

You might think, with people forced to socially distance themselves, that the amount of dating, in general, must be on the decline. But that might not be the case. During the initial lockdown in early to mid-2020, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble experienced sharp increases in usage. In particular, Bumble saw an 84% increase in the number of video chats and voice calls. 

So, perhaps remote work romance isn't dead after all.

One of the prevailing sentiments of the last year has been the difficulty of loneliness. Lockdown has wreaked havoc on everyone's social wellbeing to some extent. 

Apps like Microsoft Teams and Zoom have improved our ability to connect over vast distances. Not only has this played a huge role in helping businesses to adapt their infrastructures to cope with the demands of lockdown, but it's also made it possible for people to have a facsimile of face-to-face interaction with their friends and loved ones.

And while many people are turning to dating apps to find romantic connections, for those of us working from home, a relatively large part of our time is still spent working alongside our remote colleagues. 

If anything, the loneliness of social isolation makes the connections we share with our co-workers even more important and defining.  

Although they're becoming more popular, dating apps aren't for everyone. A lot of people still prefer to date people they know, or have some shared social connection with, like being set up with a friend of a friend. 

With that in mind, it's not out of the question that virtual sparks could fly between colleagues. 

But remote work romance can be less overtly disruptive and harder to spot than its in-office equivalent. After all, unless they're making "˜kissy faces' at each other in group meetings, you may never know that two of your team members are exploring a relationship.

Handling remote work romance in your business

So, what do you do if some of your employees are dating? 

Well, let's assume that your business doesn't have a blanket ban on romance between employees, because that would just be a very short explanation of how turnover works.

The exact approach to take depends on the seniority of the employees involved If they're both ground-level employees, there's certainly a lot less room for abuses of power. At that point, your main concern is whether the relationship will impact the ability of said employees to conduct themselves professionally. 

A tactful conversation with their manager and/or HR personnel via a Teams call is probably the best way forward. However, if the relationship falls apart, it could impact their ability to work together effectively. You may wish to pre-empt this by putting the employees on different teams to limit potential fallout and distractions.

The real complications occur when one of those employees is promoted above the other. Or, even worse, when a manager in your organisation starts a relationship with an employee. 

In the latter instance, it's especially vital to establish whether any form of coercion was involved. You'll also need to ascertain whether any of the manager's recent decision-making has been impacted in any way by their relationship.

Even if there's no coercion or anything else going on, it's still important to take the employee out of the manager's line to ensure there can be no preferential treatment or worse. 

It may sound obvious, but in the event that the employee comes up for evaluation or promotion, the manager they're romancing should play no role in their assessment.

Now, here's some advice for if you're the one considering a remote work romance. 

Firstly, it's important to know your company's policy. Many employees aren't clear on the rules about these situations, or may not be aware that the company has these rules at all. 

If your workplace has a dating policy, there's a good chance it was included as part of the onboarding package when you joined. If there's a strict no-dating policy, the only advice we can give in good conscience is to reconsider.

But even if there are no rules, or it's just frowned upon, you should still consider your actions carefully. 

Assuming it's not something that'll get you fired out of hand, it's probably in your best interests to inform HR and management of the relationship. This shows your employer that you have a vested interest in maintaining professionalism and transparency. If you're serious about the relationship, this is probably the best way to secure their blessing (or, at least, begrudging acceptance).

So to all you singletons out there, tread carefully but Happy Valentine's Day! To find out more about the latest remote work trends, or for the latest discussion on what 2021 will mean for businesses, visit the Weekly10 blog!

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