Originally published on The Pastry Box March 3, 2015.
I stared at the question in the Gallup poll. “Do you have a best friend at work?”
Well sure. We’re 14,000 people strong, I’ve been here 15 years, it was bound to happen eventually. I’ve got a bunch of best friends who work here, including two family members.
A little digging into various explanations on the intranet and the internet revealed the actual point of the question: in an attempt to identify root causes of employee engagement, they’re trying to measure trust. Does someone have your back? Do you have theirs?
Oh. They want to know if I have a work wife.
According to Wikipedia, “work spouse” or “office wife” are the standard terms, although the second has the unfortunate connotation from the 1930s of meaning what my local area calls a “coffee bitch”  For reasons already cited, I’m sticking with “work wife”.
Your work wife is your best friend at work, but that’s not the same thing as your “best friend, who also happens to work here”. For one thing, I, and most of my friends who have work wives, almost never socialize with them outside of work. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s just that our relationships, as deep as they may be, are in existence because of work, and they begin and end at the door — or the post-work happy hour. Contrast with my best-friend-also-works-here, who checks up me on weekends when I’m sick, invites me out to movies, and whose dog I will watch at the drop of a hat.
A work wife isn’t the same thing as a mentor, either. As much as mentors love to espouse the “I learn something from everyone I mentor” thing, there’s a power relationship there. One of you is trying to learn, and the other is trying to impart knowledge. Your work wife, on the other hand, isn’t looking to give or get anything out of the relationship except friendship. It’s possible to have a work wife from whom you would never in your right mind take career advice and to whom you would never attempt to teach new skills.
It’s hard to describe a work wife in a single sentence, and I prefer storytelling anyway.
He’s the one who will walk up and say, “I know you want to prep for your four meetings this afternoon, but don’t you think maybe eating lunch will be better prep than showing up as Robin Williams?” And when you say no, he pesters you into at least going downstairs and grabbing some soup, and damned if he isn’t right every time that 20 minutes away from the work fixes the whole day.
She’s the one who will listen to you when you need to dump off this pile of stress from work — or from home — and who you’ll drop everything at the office (except that damn meeting with the execs) to listen to when it’s her turn to dump off a pile of stress. She’s also the only one who would forgive you for ditching her for that damn meeting with the execs because she already knows why you’re referring to it as “that damn meeting with the execs”.
He’s the one who will say, “Your fly’s undone” or “let me take this loose string off your sleeve” or “spinach in teeth” or “whoo girl your breath, have a tictac” and you won’t even get mad.
She’s the one who sends you job postings for other departments because she’s worried about the stress you’re under (even though you both work in the same department) and she wants you to be happy. She’ll prioritize reading your cover letters over doing “funded” projects. At the same time, she’s going to tear your grammar and sentence structure apart, fill everything you ever wrote with red ink, and you’ll be glad.
When you and he go out to lunch at a restaurant to get away from the office and someone reports back to his actual wife that “I saw him out with another woman”, your wife already knows who you were out with, and she’s grateful that you’re the one taking all that stress off his shoulders so he doesn’t bring it home.
She’s the person you have the largest number of in-jokes with. You know just what to write or draw on their whiteboard or chat or email to make her grin when she’s having a bad day. And you know when she’s having a bad day without having to ask.
Because he said, “Sushi tomorrow?” you get out of bed, shower, and put on pants.
When you’re furious about something and trying to decide whether a Jerry Maguire-style rant and storm out with the fish is appropriate, the fact that you’d be sticking her with the entire Dumbass Client account causes you to consider the relative merits of a sternly-worded email to your adversary instead.
He gets mad on your behalf when someone else does something stupid that hurts your feelings. Not just, “Ugh, glad I’m not her,” mad, but actual, “Hey, do you want me to pull them aside and say something, because I totally will” mad, sometimes to Bring It proportions.
And when that happens, well, that’s a damn good feeling.
Our work wives seem to be generally members of the opposite gender. Maybe that has to do with attractiveness and intimacy and things like that  or maybe it’s more around men competing with men and women competing with women, or maybe it’s something else.
Other things I have noticed but can’t back up :
- There’s a better chance both members of the relationship are already in stable relationships outside of work, so a work spouse is neither a potential date nor a threat to the actual wife/husband.
- The relationships are purely platonic and it may take years before a work wife will feel comfortable giving their partner a hug outside of a lunch before someone goes on vacation for three weeks. After all, these are work relationships.
- We tend to work close together — the same department, the same project, the same team — at least at the beginning of the relationship.
- Not too surprisingly, giant buckets of stress in the form of deadlines, heavy workload, or an emergency the team works through together, are often involved.
- Introverts seem more prone to work wife relationships than extroverts.
- Once forged, the closeness between these two people will be noticable to others. In the worst cases, rumors start.
- Even years after the inevitable break-up, there’s a feeling of acceptance that is difficult to replace.
And there are break-ups, especially in big companies. Because proximity is such a driving force in forming these relationships, separation can tear them apart faster than a jack russel can tear the squeaker out of a stuffed squirrel.A long-term work wife relationship will survive one person changing teams, if they’re still on the same floor and working roughly the same schedule. (I’ve heard of, but never witnessed, a cross-floor pair. ) Changing floors or hours so you no longer see each other at the usual times is often a deal-breaker, and changing departments or divisions or buildings is a killer.
It’s not that you’re no longer close friends, or your stop caring for each other, or anything like that. It’s just that all relationships require care and feeding, and that’s much easier to do when the subject is within eyesight or earshot most of your eight hours a day. Quick “How’s it going?” conversations between meetings are much more difficult when you’re not passing each other in the halls or at your desks between meetings. Grabbing lunch now requires planning instead of a poke in the shoulder and the phrase “Jeet yet?”  Now a relationship that was forged in fire and proximity requires work, real work, in a place where work is causing the fires in the first place.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t break up particularly well with my last work wife. When I took a new job, I thought we could make it work, even though I was a floor up. And we did grab lunch and chat for a while — but when they moved me a mile away to a different building, well, neither of us had time for the connections anymore, and the friendship eroded fast. When we met for lunch a year or so later and he told me he had a new work wife, well, I found time to get all sniffly in my car before heading back to my overloaded meeting schedule.
Gallup’s poll question is trying to measure engagment via trust, but a work wife is a little bit more than trust. It’s a real relationship. Sometimes at the beginning it can even feel like a crush. In the middle it often feels like a reason to go to work. On a bad day a scheduled lunch with the work wife might be the only appealing reason to go to work. We shouldn’t expect the endings to be any different. When they’re done, we mourn, just as we would for any other relationship. That’s not trust, and that’s not engagement with the workplace. That’s the leap of faith we make for loving the people we work with.
The “engagement measurers” of this world would do better to ask, “Did you recently lose a work relationship close to you?” because when the person or people who go to work to spend time with leave, well, work doesn’t just lose its shine, it suffers. Suddenly tolerable annoyances become intolerable. In-jokes don’t work between one person. There’s a sort of loneliness that’s hard to shake. If ever there was a set of circumstances that screamed, “Hey get a new job!” it’s this.
We give a lot of advice in the corporate world (web design and otherwise) to make sure to have good working relationships with our clients. We suggest ways to win over support from the groups we’re not part of — business, development, design — as if they’re foreign dignitaries that we must woo and write peace treaties with. Everyone should have a mentor, we say. Everyone should be a mentor.
All good advice. And if any one of those relationships sucks eggs, well, it certainly doesn’t make the desire to go to work any stronger.
To this, we should add the advice to foster, celebrate, and cherish the strong relationships we already have.
If you have a work wife, take the time to say thank you and tell them you’re glad for the friendship. Even if you don’t, take a few moments today to tell the people that you enjoy working with the effect they have on your work day.  That moment may make another day at work worthwhile for someone, and damn, that feels good when it happens.
ENGAGE FOOTNOTE MODE:
1. For the purposes of this essay, I’m using “wife” in a non-gendered sense. Why?
- “work wife” is deliciously alliterative.
- I prefer the labiodental fricative of the /f/ in wife over the alveolar fricatives from the /z/ in “husband” or the second /s/ in “spouse”. Those words just don’t “feel” right to pronounce. Maybe it’s because /f/ and /v/ are both labiodental fricatives and so “wife” physically feels more like the word “love”. In other news, we need better terms for the male/butch partners in our lives because these physically feel icky.
- “Spouse” sounds too much like “souse” to me. Ain’t nobody got time for a work head cheese.
- We use male-gendered terms as non-gendered all the time, so why not flip it?
- Alternatively, a “wife” is, in the usual set of biases, associated with nurturing. Who doesn’t want someone nurturing in their most stressful 8 hours a day?
- I’m writing the essay so I can do what I want.
2. “When they advertised this internship, I thought I’d be doing some light office work and learning about the craft. Instead, the boss treats me like a coffee bitch and the staff think I should be chained to the copier all day.”
3. You are reading the footnotes, right? These things are a bitch to hand-code.
4. It’s worth noting that I work in a very cis and HR gets understandably twitchy when someone goes around asking the LGBTQIA members of the team “What gender is your work wife” so I haven’t researched it. The Wikipedia storyimplies the same, though.
5. As @pikelet recently said, “They’re not anecdotes, that’s small batch artisanal data”
6. I just have to ask: how far through the article would you have gotten if I hadn’t called you down here to the footnotes again?
7. Ten minutes.
8. I bet you’re wondering why that parenthetical isn’t a footnote. I don’t know either.
9. “Did you eat yet?” for those of you not from Philly.
10. You may accidentally increase engagement in the workplace. My apologies.