After almost two years of working at home with my family, it’s good to finally spend quality time with my office relatives.
Does that mark me out as a Pollyanna? Anyone who has read a novel, been in therapy, or just been alive knows families can be supportive but also dysfunctional.
You can pick your friends but not your family, goes the saying. So too with work. Unless you own the company, you rarely get to choose your colleagues.
That’s why there are so many television shows about work. As with family sagas, it is the friction of forcing disparate people together that creates the drama.
Watching the TV comedy-drama Hacks, about a prickly ageing comedian paired up with a younger eye-rolling writer, reinforced the similarities. “‘Good’ is the minimum, ‘good’ is the baseline,” the star, played by Jean Smart, says in a speech that could have been directed at her feckless daughter, as much as the writer. “You have to be so much more than good. And even if you’re great and lucky, you still have to work really fucking hard. And even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends. And it doesn’t get better. It just gets harder.” As the series develops, the comedian’s difficult relationship with the writer thaws alongside that of her worker.
Like the workplace, family life depends on a large volume of thankless, monotonous tasks — except at home they’re done for free. The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2016 that unpaid household service work in the UK was worth about 63 per cent of gross domestic product.
When it comes to work relatives, the benefits are that they provide support. There’s a special look of glazed panic that comes over my real family’s faces if I try to explain some work slight or triumph as they try to remember if the colleague cited is my boss’s boss’s boss, or someone else entirely. An office relative needs no such clarification. They just know.
Of these, the office husband and wife are the best known. A report earlier this year by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 28 per cent of US workers had someone they consider their work spouse.
The risk of having an office spouse is the potential for it to become a physical relationship. Or worse, like so many marriages, ends up an asymmetrical pairing, as one half acts as cheerleader and receptacle for the other’s emotional unloading, while their own needs go unmet.
There are also office parents. Recently a Twitter thread went viral in which an anonymous university teaching assistant, going by the handle @MeanestTA, recounts various senior members of staff seeking her help parsing slang, like “spill the tea” (gossip), one of whom she calls a “work dad”. In return, they advise her to make her sentiments workplace-friendly, such as, “How do I say there is no way you are this fucking stupid? WorkDad: I think there was a disconnect, can you restate your definition of this concept so we can ensure there’s no miscommunication?”
The risk with this particular role is that it can veer into the senior employee giving preferential treatment. We’ve all worked with people who go misty-eyed over a certain younger colleague who reminds them of their own child.
I do wonder if being an office dad is preferable to office mum, which suggests an uncomplaining nurturer, who tidies up after their younger colleagues and takes on office admin like clearing the mugs away at the end of a meeting.
One other reason to avoid being cast in this role is it makes explicit something you might prefer not to think about: ageing. I remember the precise moment that I had tipped into the old category at work. At the age of 41, I made a self-deprecating joke to a 20-something colleague about being old. He did not demur.
For the office child, the danger is developing a learnt helplessness. So too, a desire to receive praise that might never come.
I’ve not had an office spouse, child or parent. The relationship that I’ve experienced the most is an office sibling: akin to a friend who is also a rival. Sometimes these can be silly, like the colleague who would point out if I was wearing make-up in case I got too big for my boots. One friend recalls acting like a bratty, precocious brother to an older office sister. “Bit smart-arse, cheeky, always pushing. But ultimately, I knew she was the boss and deferred to her.”
I’ve been grateful for work sisters, who have tended to be wiser, administering no-nonsense counselling on job moves. I have no idea if they felt the same way about me and the relationship changed when they moved on. Unlike a real sibling, they did not feel a grudging sense of duty. Perhaps this is the best part of such relationships. They end.