After the caution surrounding the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Harassment Act, and the dirty laundry raked up by India’s #MeToo movement, could the coronavirus pandemic be the final nail in the coffin that is office romances?
As most of India’s urban workforce adapts to working from home, Zoom is the new meeting ground to formally check in co-workers. But working from home doesn’t quite cut it, when it comes to sharing lunch and gossip in the pantry, bantering with a colleague over evening chai, or loosening up during post-work drinks. And with it, the possibility of romance.
Several companies such as Twitter, TCS, and Facebook have announced indefinite remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Even those trickling back to their workplaces are spending their days being hyper-vigilant of every surface, let alone fellow human beings, making sure to keep their masks on and hand sanitiser bottles close.
Many, like Vasudevan Srinivasan, director of Continuing Education & Training Centre (CETC), who has made three hugely successful training films on sexual harassment at workplace, believes that office romance will be unabated, and easily shift to the virtual space. “Physicality is not possible, but care, warmth is still possible through the virtual medium, that can’t be stopped. It will be a seamless transition.”
Besides, employees have not necessarily needed physical proximity for sparks to fly. Manisha*, a Delhi-based digital marketing professional’s experience of dating her colleague who was posted in Hyderabad proves this. After corresponding and flirting over the phone for months, their friendship turned into romance when she visited Hyderabad for a co-worker’s wedding. But she says there are lesser chances of new connections blooming during the Covid-19 lockdown. “If you had a crush on a colleague before the lockdown and there was no progress, chances are that you’re probably still not going to do anything about it.”
The office romance conundrum
Just the term ‘office romance’ evokes an illicit feeling. When the host of popular Indian YouTube channel ‘Being Indian’ asked Mumbaikars what they think about office romance, their first reaction was to let out a nervous laugh and feign ignorance before they eventually started to dish out some details. Pop-culture might be to blame, because workplace romance is almost always portrayed as scandalous extra-marital affairs, bolstered by tropes of sexy secretaries or lecherous bosses — think of the countless affairs in the TV show Mad Men or the 2007 Bollywood film Life In A Metro. There was even that messy depiction of sexual harassment in Priyanka Chopra and Akshay Kumar’s 2004 film Aitraaz.
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But real life is different, and people do find potential partners at their workplace.
“Office romance is a real thing, and companies recognise that. It’s a human thing that will happen and does happen, no company actively discourages that,” says Ernest Lewis, HR director at Sterlite Power.
But the combination of workplace hierarchies and matters of the heart can be complicated, as the #MeToo movement rightfully demonstrated, which explains why the internet is full of do’s and don’ts lists of how one should and shouldn’t navigate relationships at work.
Has the much-needed conversation around sexual harassment at the workplace been a deterrent to romances? There is definitely more caution in the way coworkers interact now, but Lewis believes policies have only strengthened relationships for the better.
“Office romance is not impacted by POSH, the laws have actually helped create boundaries. The law has not dampened, but regulated relationships.”
For years, most Indian corporates have already had policies in place to address inter-office relationships, says Srinivasan. Different organisations may have different stances, but a common caveat is that things should not adversely affect work and there should be no conflict of interest, namely relationships between boss and subordinate, or people in a reporting relationship in the same department. “But how would a company know of a relationship? They can’t presume there are inter-office relationships,” points out Srinivasan.
Hence, for long, companies have formulated policies regarding in-house marriages or relationships. Most say they are okay with it, as long as work wasn’t affected, and for this, couples had to formally declare to the HR or their superiors that they were in a relationship.
“If they are in the same department, or in a reporting relationship, then typically one partner would have to get transferred to a different function, department or location. In some companies, if two employees are getting married, one will have to quit. But mostly, companies encourage transfers,” he tells ThePrint.
Walking down the aisle
A study conducted by Indian School of Business (ISB) students, in fact, found that Indian companies look at inter-office relationships more positively than Western ones. The study, albeit small and mostly focused on the IT sector, found that many companies held the perception that inter-office romances often resulted in reduced attrition, higher employee engagement, satisfied and happy employees, greater feelings of citizenship towards the organisation, and greater productivity through longer working hours at the workplace. It claimed that referral programmes that welcomed spouses were also on the rise.
Srinivasan echoes this view, recounting examples of big companies such as Wipro or Indian Oil, where there are several examples of married couples who work together, and might have met each other at work. “Companies don’t look at it as counterproductive, which is why they have stated policies saying that you can be in a relationship or get married as long as it’s not a reporting relationship or one with a conflict of interest.”
A 2013 survey by CareerBuilder found that 30 per cent of colleagues who dated ended their relationship with a trip down the wedding aisle. Another survey found that in America, 22 per cent of relationships turned into something serious.
Not all relationships, of course, lead to marriage. And it is these kinds of casual relationships that mostly go unreported. Casual dating and flirtation occur widely, but is not always viewed by employees as reason enough to write to the HR department. “But companies are happy not knowing, we already have a policy in place. If there’s an absence of information, we assume it might be happening but not at a level that’s detrimental to the company,” Lewis said.
What happens in coronavirus time?
Lewis believes that the lack of physical interaction will definitely contribute to a slump in relationships. “These things are catalysed more when there’s physical presence — when you don’t see an individual, when it’s only virtual, then how can it develop? I think with WFH (work from home) and remote working, office romance will come down. Lack of physical absence will result in reduced liaisons.”
This might hold true, as studies point out that it is “repeated exposure” that triggers feelings of love or attraction. It is unclear that this repeated exposure entails bumping into a colleague in the elevator or during a smoke break, or through emails and WhatsApp messages. But whether or not relationships continue during the lockdown, harassment still seems to be a persisting menace.
Srinivasan, whose organisation conducts anti-sexual harassment training, points out that there are now cases of virtual harassment.
These may involve a colleague or superior insisting on having a video call, making comments such as, “adjust your camera, why can I only see your face”, lounging in an inappropriate way while being on video call or making work calls late at night.
Working remotely has resulted in a blurring of lines between the workplace and home, with formal conversations seamlessly slipping into informal, and the self-conscious regulation applied at work not always possible to practice at home. Some of these instances, Srinivasan says, have translated into formal complaints, but there needs to be a further expansion of definition of a workplace. “Earlier, the definition was somewhat broadened to include work dinners, out of station work trips, etc. But now home has become a workplace.”
Be it lack of physical distance, or apprehension about office policies, workplace dynamics are constantly in a state of flux. Social distancing in the time of Covid-19 might further upend whatever chances we had of finding love at work.
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