How Workplace Romance Has Evolved Through the Generations

SimpleJoy
6 min readApr 24, 2023

Romance at work isn’t always a light topic. It can be challenging, especially for those caught in the midst of it.

Source: HRReporter

It was a lovely dinner, more of a reunion with former colleagues who have now become dear friends. We used to work together on a project at a foreign development agency several years ago.

Time has gone by, and most of us have found ourselves in different places. But we still occasionally gather to share and laugh at our past memories. After all, every memory becomes a good one once we’ve moved past it.

We couldn’t resist the gossip about former office romances. What happened to X? Are they still having an affair with Y? Did A finally marry B? Gossip about romance in our old office is sometimes more intriguing than office politics or the substance of development projects.

We heard about former colleagues who eventually married, had two kids, and continued working together.

But we also discovered that a former female coworker on another project was “relocated” to an overseas assignment in a less-developed country after her romance with her boss was exposed. Meanwhile, her boss returned to his home office in Europe. The official announcement declared they both received “promotions,” but rumors spread faster than the announcement, unfortunately.

Romance at work isn’t always a light topic. It can be challenging, especially for those caught in the midst of it.

Source: Insperity

As many of us have now settled into married (or divorced) life, begun to approach retirement, and find it unlikely to engage in any more workplace romances, our conversation naturally shifted to the next generation: our adult children.

We couldn’t help but wonder if younger generations would encounter the same challenges and blessings of workplace romance and whether it was something we should concern ourselves with.

Romance at the workplace is timeless. While social norms, technologies, and work environments have evolved over time, certain fundamental aspects of human relationships—how people form connections, communicate, and interact with one another—have remained consistent. They are deeply rooted in human nature.

Before the 2020s, remote work was less common, and most employees worked together in physical offices. The office-centric work environment facilitated more in-person interactions and provided ample opportunities for coworkers to develop personal and romantic relationships.

You might recall the famous happy-ending story of Barack and Michelle Obama. They first met in 1989, when Barack joined the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin as a summer associate. Michelle, already working at the firm as a lawyer, was assigned as Barack’s mentor. Their relationship began professionally, but they started dating later that summer and eventually married on October 3, 1992.

Source: Today

But you may also remember the infamous romance between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, which became a scandal in the late 1990s. Although their relationship was consensual, the significant power imbalance and high-profile nature of the individuals involved led to controversy, legal proceedings, and impeachment proceedings against Clinton.

Workplace romances can be traced far back to the nineteenth century, when they were known as “behaviors that had no name.” The Industrial Revolution brought men and women together in various workplaces, providing opportunities for romantic interactions.

However, it was more discreet and constrained by societal norms and expectations. Gender roles were more rigid, and interactions between male and female coworkers were often met with concern.

People did meet their future spouses at work, but courtship rituals were typically more modest and private compared to today.

Source: Dalnavert Museum and Visitors’ Centre

As the 20th century progressed, workplace romance evolved as societal norms, gender roles, and workplace dynamics changed. As more women entered the workforce and gained greater independence, romantic interactions between coworkers became more common and accepted.

In reflecting on workplace romance, I’ve come to understand that it can have both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, these relationships can contribute to increased job satisfaction and improved teamwork.

Yet, on the other hand, they might give rise to favoritism, conflicts of interest, reduced professionalism, and changes in team dynamics. The aftermath of breakups can be particularly challenging, as they often create uncomfortable environments that negatively impact productivity, cause increased turnover, and even lead to legal issues.

Source: Claritywave

I initially believed that as the pandemic subsided and remote work became more common, workplace romance would decrease due to less in-person interaction compared to, say, the 2000s. However, it appears I was mistaken.

A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that one-third of US workers (33%) are currently or have been involved in a workplace romance, which is 6 percentage points higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic (27 percent).

Source:SHRM

While attitudes and experiences related to workplace romance may vary depending on factors like culture, industry, and company size, the trend of increased numbers seems to be consistent.

Cultural norms, industry characteristics, and company size all play a role in shaping how workplace romances are perceived and managed. Some cultures and organizations are more accepting of these relationships, while others might view them as unprofessional.

In innovative, fast-paced sectors like tech and startups, close personal connections often flourish, whereas traditional industries tend to be more conservative.

Smaller companies may have tighter employee relationships, which can lead to romantic connections, but these could affect team dynamics.

On the other hand, larger organizations provide more opportunities for workplace romance without significant disruptions, though they may have more formal policies in place to address potential issues.

I also wonder if an organization’s recruitment process might play a crucial role in workplace romance.

Companies often use various tests and assessments during the hiring process to ensure potential employees align with the company culture, possess the necessary skills, and share similar values and interests.

This can foster an environment where employees are more likely to connect with one another, both professionally and personally.

In the 2020s, factors such as remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, advances in digital communication, a growing focus on work-life balance, and an increased emphasis on inclusivity and diversity have transformed workplace dynamics.

Source: Claritywave

A greater reliance on digital tools, which can facilitate personal connections, including romantic ones, has offset the decline in face-to-face interactions.

This evolving landscape contrasts with the 2000s, when office-centric environments and less emphasis on work-life balance and diversity shaped the nature of workplace relationships.

However, blurred boundaries between work and personal life in the digital era can make maintaining a healthy balance while engaging in workplace romance more challenging.

As our conversation wound down, we reached a consensus: we don’t need to worry about our children. We have faith that they will find their own paths.

Each of us has our own stories about our workplaces, whether romantic or platonic, happy or sad.

So, let’s allow the next generation to paint their own stories and write their histories.

We’ll be there to support them as they navigate the complexities of their own workplace relationships, learning and growing along the way.

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SimpleJoy

Mother & aid practitioner 🌏 | Exploring cultural bridges 🌐, aid industry insights 🔍, and cherishing life's simple pleasures 🌸