Wedded work bliss:
"the office spouse"
It's not a love connection but
there are corporate couples
a marriage-like relationship on the job.
And they say the bond makes them
happier and better employees...
Special to Canadian
The Globe and Mail:
Careers: April 5, 2006: MARJO JOHNE
It's been almost 20 years since the day they first met, but Krista Hiddema
and Stuart Ducoffe say they're closer than ever.
They spend most of their waking hours together. They travel frequently side
by side. And even when they're apart, they manage to hook up by phone.
"We are so connected to one another," Ms. Hiddema, a human resource
specialist who works alongside Mr. Ducoffe, an employment lawyer, at e2r
Solutions, the HR consulting arm of the Toronto law firm Woolgar VanWiechen
Ketcheson Ducoffe, LLP. "We know each other so well, I can often predict
what he is going to say."
Another love connection at work? Whoa, says Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe.
While they may be spending countless hours together and are so close they
often communicate without speaking, there is nothing romantic about their
relationship, they say.
They're simply office mates who also happen to be soul mates.
Or, to use a term that has come into vogue, Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe are
office spouses -- corporate couples bound by mutual respect, common
interests and that particular chemistry of friendship.
"I often joke that Stuart is my daytime husband," says Ms. Hiddema, who got
married two-and-a-half years ago to her "real" husband. Mr. Ducoffe is
"But while I would admit that I had girlfriends who said, 'why aren't you
dating Stuart' and Stuart had friends asking him the same thing about me, we
were always just such good friends."
Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe aren't the only ones enjoying such close
friendships at work with colleagues of the opposite sex. Recent studies show
many people are saying "I do" to an office spouse.
In a survey last January by Vault Inc., a New York-based career research
firm, 32 per cent of employees acknowledged having an office spouse.
And 17 per cent of Australians said they have workplace husbands and wives,
according to a survey last July by LinkMe.com.au, an on-line job network.
The survey was spurred by a dinner party slip of the tongue by U.S. national
security adviser Condoleeza Rice, who inadvertently referred to her boss,
U.S. president George Bush, as "my husb. . ." Some observers interpreted
that verbal stumble as a sign that she saw Mr. Bush as her office spouse.
Men and women have long enjoyed friendships at work, experts say. But as
more women have climbed the corporate ladder, male and female employees are
increasingly working as peers.
Throw them into an environment where they're told to work as a tightly knit
team and forced to spend long hours together, and it isn't surprising that
many develop strong personal bonds, says Julian Barling, associate dean and
professor of organizational behaviour and psychology at the Queens School of
Business in Kingston, Ont.
"People today are spending more time at work in physical surroundings that
make it more likely that romantic or deep-seated, non- romantic
relationships will develop," he says. "You put people in cubicles together
and you expect them to work closely together, so what do you expect?"
David Irvine, a human dynamics expert and author based in Cochrane, Alta.,
says that office-spouse relationships are a natural byproduct of employers'
demands for greater creativity at work.
"I think we're seeing more of these types of relationships because companies
are encouraging more innovation, creativity and passion in the workplace,"
he says. "And when you're more creative, you're more vulnerable and more
open to people."
Mr. Irvine says he dislikes the term "office spouse" -- as does Prof.
Barling, who says it has negative connotations, though he believes the close
friendship at the core of such a relationship is generally beneficial for
workplace partners and their employers.
Having a close chum at work makes employees happier about coming to the
office, Mr. Irvine says. And everyone knows a happier employee is a more
productive and loyal employee.
Research from the Gallup Organization supports this belief. Between 2002 and
2004, Gallup interviewed 4.5 million employees across the United States and
found that about 30 per cent had a best friend in the office.
Of this group, close to 60 per cent said they felt engaged on the job. By
comparison, nearly 65 per cent of employees without an office best buddy
said they were disengaged.
Scott Richer, marketing manager for Delta Hotels, a subsidiary of Fairmont
Hotels & Resorts Inc., says having a best friend at work has made him a
Two years ago, he formed an affinity with Mary Pattison, Delta's director of
marketing. "It lends for a very cohesive environment for us and brings value
to our performance. I feel like I'm playing with a teammate who always knows
where I'm going to be on the ice."
Ms. Pattison says that having a close male friend at work has helped hone
her business skills. She believes men and women generally have different
approaches to business, so she pays close attention to how Mr. Richer
handles certain work situations.
Being a male-female tag team also comes in handy when dealing with clients
and suppliers, she says.
"Sometimes we run into situations where we meet with someone who is just
naturally more comfortable having a conversation with someone of the same
gender, and we're fine with that."
Similarly, Ms. Hiddema and Mr. Ducoffe say their close relationship allows
them to represent both male and female perspectives to clients. And their
positive chemistry makes for lively presentations, Mr. Ducoffe adds.
Having a close ally at work also helps relieve some of the stresses of the
job, they say.
Instead of simmering all day, they can tell each other their troubles. And
because his confidante is a woman, Mr. Ducoffe says he's more comfortable
exposing his feelings, even those about his personal life.
"I wouldn't do that with a male colleague; men just don't tend to do that.
But I have done it with Krista where we've closed the door and said 'All
right, here's a personal aspect of my life that I just need to get off my
chest right now.' "
Ms. Pattison says it's nice to be able to lower her defences when she's
working with Mr. Richer.
"I can let my hair down. I don't have to be perfect around Scott all the
time," she says.
"We can be goofy and have our quirks and let it all hang out."
They can also air their disagreements more openly, without worrying about
offending the other person, she adds.
But what office spouses should worry about, says human resource experts, is
how their thick-as-thieves relationship might affect workplace dynamics.
"Don't be seen as a clique," warns Stephanie Milliken, president of Milliken
HR Consulting in Vancouver.
"Be careful about being so close that you start to exclude others."
Office spouses also need to be alert to any appearances of favouritism, she
For instance, if they're working as part of a larger team, they shouldn't
automatically buddy up. Instead, they should make an effort to reach out to
other team members, she says.
All too aware of the dangers, Mr. Richer and Ms. Pattison say they always
invite colleagues to join them for lunch, after-dinner drinks, even
extra-curricular sports. And although Ms. Pattison is his best friend at
work, Mr. Richer says he is also close with a couple of other female
colleagues at Delta.
But what about the people at home -- the husbands, wives, boyfriends or
Many respondents to both the Vault and Link.com.au surveys said their
significant others had no problems with their close office relationships.
That is certainly the case for Ms. Hiddema's husband, who isn't at all
threatened by her relationship with Mr. Ducoffe. And Mr. Ducoffe says his
fiancée is just as comfortable with Ms. Hiddema.
Mr. Richer and Ms. Pattison have introduced their significant others at home
to their significant others at the office.
"The four of us have met each other, had dinner together and we all like
each other," Mr. Richer says.
Their spouses also probably appreciate the fact that they don't have to
listen to work stories at the end of the day, he adds.
"Being able to have a relationship with someone who knows exactly what you
just went through, it makes going home a lot easier because you don't take
stress home that much."
Not that there's a lot of stress to take home, he says, for having Ms.
Pattison at the office makes for an enjoyable work day.
"She actually makes up for what I would like to have in salary," he says.
"She's one of the reasons I enjoy my job."
Here's expert advice on handling office spouse
- Clear the air. It's an unfortunate
reality but close male-female relationships -- even strictly platonic -
can set off nasty office rumours.David Irvine, a human dynamics expert,
recommends making the relationship clear as soon as possible. "The best
place to start would be with a manager. Explain that there is nothing
untoward going on and make sure you have the organization's support."
- Let others in. The office is no place for
exclusive relationships, says HR consultant Stephanie Milliken. Whenever
possible, invite co-workers into your circle. Ask them to join you for
lunch or that 10-kilometre race you and your office spouse are planning to
- Put your "real" spouse in the picture.
It's a good idea to let your romantic partner get to know your office
partner, says Krista Hiddema, an HR management consultant who has an
- Let common sense be your guide.
- Should you avoid being alone with your office spouse,
sit apart at meetings and touch each other only with a 10-foot pole?
- It's impossible to put so many restrictions on a
close work relationship, but experts say it's important to set
appropriate boundaries, just as you would with any other office
- Some no-nos: too much touching, exchanging
off-colour jokes, and flirting. "And don't meet at 11 p.m. in a dark
bar," Ms. Hiddema says.
- Have a clear workplace conduct policy. Be
explicit about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in
the workplace, Ms. Hiddema. This lets everyone know upfront what's
- Keep an open mind. Companies should
resist the urge to clamp down at the first sign of closeness between a
male and female employee, Mr. Irvine says. As long as they act within the
organization's code of conduct boundaries and aren't disrupting the
workplace, their friendships are none of the employer's business, he says.
- Encourage team work. "Get people together
for coffee, brainstorming sessions, sports and recognition programs," Ms.
Milliken says. This not only encourages friendships at work but breaks
- Address valid concerns right away. If a
close relationship in your office is starting to get in the way of work or
making other people uncomfortable, tackle the problem right away, Mr.
Irvine says. He suggests having a talk with the duo in question. "But do
it in a way that respects the employees. Don't cast a negative light on
their relationship; instead, get them involved in finding ways to be more
inclusive and to make good use of their unique dynamic."