If, like me, you’re a fan of "The Office," you’ll no doubt have been absorbed by the “will they or won’t they” tension between Pam and Jim in early episodes of the show. And you might just have rejoiced when they started dating, moved in together, and finally got married.
Pam and Jim seem to be getting along just fine, but are workplace romances really such a great idea? Would you ever consider taking the sexual attraction you feel for a colleague any further?
It turns out that workplace romances are quite common. Surveys show that 71 percent of employees have either observed or participated in workplace romance and 24 percent of managers have been involved with someone else at work at least once during their career. What’s more, polls have shown that about 30 percent of all romantic relationships begin at work with a fellow employee (in the U.S., that’s about 10 million consensual romantic relationships annually) and that about 15 percent of people meet their long-term partners at work.
Workplaces really are a hotbed of romance!
So why do workplaces offer Cupid such good practice for his archery? In previous columns, I’ve discussed two of the main ingredients for a workplace romance: proximity and mere exposure. In the first place, proximity acts as the "social lubricant" that ensures two people working near each other will interact and potentially become attracted to one another. It’s really no surprise that the vast majority of people who have workplace romances usually work in the same immediate vicinity, in adjoining offices or in the same building.
Consider the results of one interesting study: a researcher watched twelve women who worked at separate desks organized in three rows. The women didn’t have to work together very much, but that didn’t stop them from frequently interacting. Every fifteen minutes, the researcher noted who was interacting with whom, and over the course of several weeks recorded over 1,500 conversations.
The interesting thing was that interactions took place mainly between women who sat at neighbouring desks, and the more they interacted the more they were likely to form cliques within the larger group of women. So, proximity is key factor leading to workplace romances because it increases the chances of interaction, which can sometimes stimulate sexual desire.
But, if you think about it, there are different types of proximity in the workplace and, in fact, psychologists have identified at least three types. The first is obvious enough: sheer geographical or spatial proximity means that individuals will be physically near one another for extended periods of time. Another is occasional or temporary proximity, where individuals don’t enjoy regular contact, but rather bump into each other when getting the lift or standing in line at the cafeteria. It turns out, even this type of proximity is enough to spark sexual attraction.
But the type of proximity that’s most likely to foster a workplace romance is what psychologists call “ongoing work requirement proximity”. This is the closeness that results from employees having to spend time together in training, on joint work, business trips, or other work requirements. Ongoing work requirement proximity means that, not only do employees depend on each other to get a job done, they also have to spend time together and interact. In fact, surveys indicate that ongoing work requirement proximity account for upwards of 70 percent of all workplace romances.
In general, there is a greater likelihood that two employees who are in close proximity to each other will interact on multiple occasions. This is where “mere exposure” comes in: in a previous column, I discussed research which shows that repeated exposure to a stimulus usually leads to more positive evaluations of that stimulus. The same is true in the workplace: employees who frequently interact as part of their daily routines can become attracted to each other because of their repeated exposure to one another.
It’s not surprising, then, that studies of workplace romances show that mere exposure can result in increased perceptions of liking between employees, which in turn increases the likelihood of a romantic relationship being sparked. It turns out that even small amounts of mere exposure can lead to attraction. Some studies have shown that about two-fifths of workplace romances involve employees spending less than five hours per week together at work before they become involved with each other.
Interestingly, researchers have also noted that repeated exposure outside of the workplace can enhance the likelihood of romance. For example, some researchers have suggested that traveling with co-workers can be very romantic and intimate. Similarly, workplace parties, get-togethers, and conferences can create an intimate atmosphere, especially if inhibitions and social barriers are relaxed.
Of course, there are other factors that determine whether or not a workplace romance will develop and flourish (we’ll visit some of these factors in future columns). Even so, proximity and mere exposure are the two important ingredients for workplace romances. You might even say that proximity and mere exposure are the foundations that make workplaces such excellent, natural incubators for attraction.
Next month we'll look at why workplace romances are so common, yet so frowned upon. Until then, keep an eye out for any office attraction near you!
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