Work spouses are easy to spot. Think 30 Rock's Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy or Grey's Anatomy's Meredith Grey and Christina Yang. They're the colleagues who are always in each other's offices. You can spot them together on coffee runs and at lunch times. They share inside jokes and work assignments. Their codependency is possibly getting on the last nerve you have.
Before you roll your eyes too hard (or get defensive, if you have an office spouse), read this list and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this close working relationship:
Pro: Work spouses make professional sense. It's smart to build personal capital in your workplace, particularly if you're a new employee. Father and daughter Larry and Meagan Johnson work together at Johnson Training Group (johnsontraininggroup.com), a consulting firm that helps organizations improve productivity and employee morale, and they advocate the benefits of workplace friendships. According to Meagan, a trusted work spouse can pitch in for both small and significant favors, from swapping shifts to assisting on large company projects. "You'll do things to make that person more successful at their job," she says. "Things that in a normal situation a regular co-worker wouldn't do."
Con: They blur professional and personal boundaries. When you're really close to a colleague, you naturally discuss personal matters with them and possibly spend off hours together. This is great, except that you might end up discussing way too many home issues at work and way too many work issues at home.
Pro: Work spouses inspire productivity. If you're friendly with the office's best employee, their good habits could rub off on you. It's easier to stay a little later to wrap up an important assignment if your best bud is plugging away alongside you. He or she might also inspire some friendly competition: If you know that your work friend will bring great ideas to the next brainstorming session, it might influence you to prepare a few good ones of your own to share.
Con: They could lower productivity. Make nice with the office super-slacker instead of the office superstar, and your performance may suffer. Instead of occasionally staying late to pitch in on an office project, you're frequently sneaking out early to enjoy the nearest happy hour. Instead of emailing good work ideas back and forth, you're instant messaging to recap the latest episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Pro: Work spouses could alleviate work stress. Taking breaks during the work day is important, and doing so with an officemate could be a fun chance to blow off steam or catch up. Meagan speaks specifically of one of her work colleagues and close friends when she says, "We talk every day at least once. ... And even though our conversations are about work, a big part of our conversations are about social stuff as well. That's part of the fabric of our relationship, and that's important. It's fun to be so close."
Con: They could generate office strife. A close-knit work friendship might inspire jealousy from other office mates. It could especially cause animosity if one colleague has seniority over the other. "If one of you is a manager, then you really have to be careful how you interact with each other as well as with others on the team," warns Larry, a professional speaker and corporate culture strategist.
Pro: You can talk to a work spouse about office issues. Your other friends don't understand the professional pressures you're facing, nor do they find your office stories funny. But your work spouse knows your office dynamics and speaks your professional jargon. They could offer a compassionate ear plus targeted advice.
Con: You can gossip to them about work issues. Venting to your closest friends is natural, but that can become problematic if one of your good friends is also a co-worker. It's all too tempting to run to your colleague's cubicle to moan about an uncooperative co-worker, instead of taking those issues to your boss or human resources.
Both Johnsons offer pointers to ensure that those who have a work spouse keep their relationship fruitful and not toxic:
Set boundaries. "That personal connection you have, which is so important, can be draining if you don't set personal and professional boundaries," says Meagan, a professional speaker and generational humorist. "Let's say some emotional issue comes up in the middle of the morning, and your friend wants to talk about it. It might not behoove you professionally to listen to that problem now. You could say, 'I can't talk about it now, but I can talk to you at 2 p.m. uninterrupted.'"
If you had a preexisting relationship before becoming colleagues, Larry suggests establishing those boundaries before the first day in the office. "In a previous job, I worked with my best friend. She and her husband and me and my wife played bridge together every week, and I hired her with some trepidation," he recalls. "We discussed how we could work together and what rules to set so we didn't mess up our friendship, and also so that we would be careful not to show favoritism. It's good to have that conversation early on."
Remain professional in the office. Be careful about being too chummy in meetings and at work events, and avoid spending too much time together in the office. You particularly have to toe the line if one of you is a manager. "It's great to jive well with a colleague, even when you're in management," Larry says. "But you have to be careful as well. Both of you have to respect your role as a manager. For example, you can't go to lunch together every day."
Also be conscientious and consistent with your communication style. "Sometimes you have to ask yourself: 'If they were just any other colleague or employee, would I have spoke to them that way?'" Larry adds.