Workplace romances have always been part and parcel of the world of work. But, many modern businesses have policies in place to prevent romantic relationships 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 work romance tough as we work remote. 

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?

A survey by Monster from 2018 reported 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. So, will work romances prove to be as popular as we move to a more remote working world. 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 if it 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 behavior 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 get the best projects, then it’s going to be hard to ignore. 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

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 romance isn’t dead after all, even at work.

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 helped businesses to adapt, but it’s also made it possible for people connect.

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. 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.

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. 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 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.

It gets complicated when one of those employees is promoted. 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. Check your company’s onboarding pack. 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, please consider your actions carefully.

Assuming it’s not something that’ll get you fired for, 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).