From Monday morning until Friday afternoon, female colleague E. and male colleague T are married by day. In the morning they dance a greeting ritual, in the early afternoon they have “lunch dates” and shortly before clocking off, they process the day’s results together. During the time in between they coordinate projects and presentations and manage the so-called day-to-day operations together – and they do it all in perfect harmony. Their relationship with each other in the office is more trusting and sincere than some “real” long-term marriages. So you could say: it works for them.
Their career and hierarchy levels within the team are the same, and their tasks and scope of responsibility so similar, that E. and T. are aspiring to the same career path or – to put it more clearly - they could certainly cross paths when it comes to future career plans. Theoretically. Because ultimately they are “work wife and work husband” – or so they call their platonic relationship in the workplace, which could also be described in short as a special type of “friendship among colleagues”. Alongside the obvious trust in the office, this also includes occasionally spending time together after work or during the weekend. Rivalry and competition are not included in this construct.
All completely normal
E. and T. are not alone in having a work marriage. A Forsa survey commissioned last summer by the career network Xing concludes that: every tenth person has a “work wife” or a “work husband”, defined as “not just a normal workplace friendship, but a relationship of trust with a colleague, that is similar to a marriage”.
Friendships in the office, the place in which employees usually hang around for multiple hours during the week, are now as normal as the classic boss-secretary romance. More rule than exception. In the past few years a term has even been established for this mixed relationship type: friends who are also colleagues are now called “frolleagues”.
Depending on the branch and company, there are whole teams and departments in which the majority of employees not only get on well in the office but are also friends outside of work.
Office friendships – the productivity killer?
So far, so good. Or? “Frolleagues – the great misunderstanding” was a headline two years ago in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The accompanying article put forward the theory that workplace friendships damage careers. The article claims that a good working environment is not necessarily good for the success of the firm. That’s because, the author writes, quality needs friction. According to the article, if all colleagues are friends, the pursuit of friendship trumps the pursuit of quality.
Is that the case? “Well,” says Dörte Müller, “I don’t see it as quite so black and white.” She is well informed in the social structures of technology businesses. As an Agile Organisation Developer at OTTO, Dörte coaches agile teams in problems surrounding the issues of cooperation, leadership, self-organisation and New Work. “From my own experience and observations I can say that office friendships don’t decrease productivity. But they don’t increase it either.” In her opinion, workplace friendships are therefore a good thing, because employees not only share the collective joy of the working day, “but such relationships also always result in solidarity amongst colleagues. People who understand exactly which personal challenges or problems you are facing at work.” A colleague as a confidant. In addition, Dörte says that employees in friendly colleague relationships are not necessarily more productive when compared to competition-driven employees, but they are always more motivated to generate positive feedback. For Dörte, this is a clear advantage within a company culture.
Men like harmony, too
The pursuit of harmony and friendship is actually not a “typical woman thing”, says the Organisation Developer. In particular within the agile teams in software development, she sees a lot of male friendships. “They spend a lot of time together, know each other on a personal level, often inside and out, trust each other and work the same way.” And, she says, that is in no way a hindrance for a company’s productivity. “In fact it’s the complete opposite”, Dörte is certain: “within the interdisciplinary teams in particular, working well on a personal level is a decisive factor. Everyone in these teams is working together as a whole, they can’t just all do their own thing.” Dörte is certain that viewing a person in their entirety – the positives and the negatives – leads to more mindful interactions between one another.
"Within the interdisciplinary teams in particular, working well on a personal level is a decisive factor."
If and when we describe that as a friendship, and how we choose to maintain and cultivate that, is up to each individual person. Just like it is an individual decision whether a platonic office liaison will perhaps become something more down the line. Dörte Mülle doesn’t think much of calling platonic office friendships “work marriages.” “The term, and the significance of marriage associated with it, is simply misplaced in this context. A friendship amongst colleagues is in principle no different from a friendship outside of the company walls: a relationship of trust between two people, whose value and structure the people involved determine for themselves, in a way that is entirely personal to them.”
E. and T. did exactly that. What their special relationship means for their personal career plans and their own progress is something the two of them alone can decide. Because in the end, they are the only people who can answer the question of how much work their friendship can take – and how much friendship their work can take.