Obstacle #5: Confessions of a Work Wife

Every morning, I walked into Shane’s office with two cups of coffee.

I handed one across the desk and sat down for 10-15 minutes… sometimes venting about another coworker, sometimes describing the weekend’s events, sometimes vetting ideas for an upcoming campaign.  Some afternoons, we’d step out to grab lunch.  If something ridiculous was happening in the hallway, an IM from Shane, only two doors down, immediately popped up, “Did we just hear what I think we heard?”  When one of my presentations went horribly awry, he was first to hear me lament and relive the pain. When a big sales deal fell through, he’d slump in the chair across my desk and walk through what went sideways and when.

Was I a work wife?  I didn’t think about it until recently – long after I had left that job, and Shane.

Work spouse: A significant other you work with, whom you connect, share, and spend time with exclusively and intimately in the workplace. Both parties are mere acquaintances outside of the workplace and are completely unknown to each other’s true and respective domestic spouses. (Urban Dictionary)

So, let’s talk about the “work wife.”

You’re in a tight knit environment, sharing the same peer group, the same bosses, the same projects, deadlines and pressures.  You rely on your cohorts in the trenches alongside you, whether it’s getting through a difficult meeting or celebrating a project’s success.  These relationships can be empowering and fun, but they can also lead to politics and drama.

Consider your work spouse: what role does he play in the organization?  Does your counterpart have influence over your position – the type that can get you promoted… or fired?  How do your coworkers view your relationship and does that impact how they engage with you?

Our independent, cavalier persona responds to those questions with a “Who cares?”  But we do care.  And we should.  The nature of our relationships at work makes up a large component of our ability to be productive and effective in the work environment.  Our work spouses feed and empower us, supporting our success.  But any drama, or perceived drama, can minimize us and our ability to have an impact.

The “power work wife” is the ideal work wife relationship.  Your counterpart is a peer and a true partner in your work projects and initiatives.  You’re an internal power couple, essentially, working together towards a common goal and with mutual respect and agreement around how to get things done.  Your ideas are respected, your suggestions given even weight and you do not feel like you are pushing or fighting with your partner to be heard or understood.  While this relationship will still entertain its share of gossip, the balance of power is that of equals and this is visible to the organization.

The subordinate work wife is a trickier matter.  The earliest usage of the term work wife was a

reference by a CEO to his administrative assistant, and historically, that has been the perception.  The work wife takes care of the husband’s needs at work – ensuring he’s organized, receives and responds to messages, gets to meetings on time and has lunch/coffee as required.  Then he goes home and the home-based wife fills in the gaps.

The balance of power here can be challenging.  In an admin/exec relationship, the roles are clear and the power balance is dependent on the personalities involved.  But what happens when you are the work wife to someone higher on the food chain but who is not your direct boss?  If his position can influence your advancement within the company, then you’re still a target for the rumor mill.  More so because the relationship between the executive and the executive admin is easily explained – it’s a stereotype – but a close relationship with an imbalance of power and no direct reporting ties leaves much open to overactive imaginations in the work place.

Confessions of a Work Wife
So here’s the truth: there was no Shane.

But there was a Shirley. Seriously. Same scenario in my opening paragraph – daily coffee, occasional lunch, lots of IMs, phone calls and hallway conversations. If you look at the definition of a work spouse, she was it.  It was only later, as we left our place of mutual employment, that we really became personal friends (and then Dirty Girl partners).

Was I still a work wife?

Or are we just friends?

If you’re about to tell me the sexual undertones of a male/female friendship is an old fashioned view, then you’re ignoring the truth our work mores place before us daily.  No one cared if every day I walked into Shirley’s office, handed her  cup of coffee and spent ten minutes telling her about the idiot barista who interpreted my soy mocha as soy milk and gave me a hot steaming cup of milk… like I was a toddler getting ready for bed (yeah, that really happened).

Perception matters.

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