For many women, the idea of having just one best friend – one ride-or-die, one BFFL, one soul sister – is something we grow out of. In our twenties and thirties, the smoulderingly intense connections of our teenage years tend to be replaced with more relaxed bonds. We appreciate a good spread of mates, and we’re less likely to valorise one platonic relationship above all others.
However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this more laidback approach to friendship doesn’t exist in the office. I spend a lot of time reading and writing about careers in my job as a journalist, and recently, I’ve noticed one phrase popping up again and again. That phrase is ‘work wife’.
The term itself is nothing new. In fact, it’s thought to have originated with British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was quoted in 1933 as saying that “a minister and his secretary should understand each other as perfectly as a husband and wife”. However, it has been commandeered by millennial women in the last few years to describe a very specific dynamic.
A work wife, in theory, is the emotional glue that holds your professional existence together. She has your back when your boss is on the warpath, knows everything about your love life, and can recite your standard Pret order off by heart. She’s not just your co-worker; she’s your best friend.
The work wife appears frequently in pop culture, particularly in TV (think Ann Perkins and Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy, and Catastrophe’s Sharon and Melissa). And the significance of this primary office relationship has been backed up by a slew of research – from a report in the Harvard Business Review noting that employees with a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be engaged in their job, to a recent survey claiming that almost a quarter of UK employees with ‘work spouses’ would consider resigning if their friend quit or moved to another department.
Search #workwife or related terms (e.g. #workwives) on Instagram, meanwhile, and you’ll find over 170,000 hashtags, generally attached to photos of beaming young female co-workers. All the evidence suggests that this is a relationship we are supposed to want.
And yet most of us have never experienced this kind of professional friendship. Only 17% of UK employees polled by TotalJobs said that they have a work spouse, with 35% saying that they don’t have any strong relationships in the office at all. If you’ve yet to find your career soulmate, you might feel as though you’re doing something wrong; as though you’ve failed in some way. But that just isn’t the case.
I’m going to speak from experience here, if I may. I don’t have a work wife, and I’m fine with that. The reason I don’t have a best friend at work isn’t that I’m cripplingly shy, or that I hate my colleagues, or because I’m one of those fearsome-but-also-impressive women who insists that they don’t care whether people like them or not. (Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll assure you that my need to be liked borders on the pathological.)
Neither is it the case that I don’t understand why so many women in their twenties and thirties do seek out close work friendships. We’re an unprecedentedly ambitious generation, aspiring to careers that will provide us with personal fulfilment as well as a pay cheque, and we spend much of our lives in the office (the average UK adult aged 20-34 works more than 40 hours a week). In this climate, it makes perfect sense that a work wife relationship has become a sort of socio-professional Holy Grail.
But what also makes sense to me is a desire to maintain boundaries between my day job and my ‘real life’. Thanks to technology, it’s all too easy for work to creep into every area of our lives: urgent emails that you just have to reply to at 8pm on a weeknight, Sunday afternoons spent ‘getting ahead’ on admin. No matter how lovely my colleagues are, heading to the pub for regular post-work drinks sometimes feels like yet more time that I’m giving over to ‘work stuff’.
And if you’re not hanging out or communicating with your colleagues outside of the office, you’re unlikely to form a work wife relationship. Luciana*, 30, says that she isn’t especially close to anyone in her office, partly because she rarely spends time with her colleagues beyond the 9-5.
“I like my free time to be relaxed, happy and about anything other than work, otherwise it just takes over your entire life,” she explains. “Between work, commuting and the gym, I find that I barely have time to see my husband and ‘real world’ friends as it is. Any free time I have, I’d rather spend with the people I care most about.”
There’s also the issue that no matter how close you are to your work wife, you still have to be colleagues first and foremost – and this can easily lead to tension. One 2016 study found that people who are good friends with co-workers tend to struggle to maintain those relationships, and can feel emotionally exhausted as a result.
In addition, professional friction can become even more emotionally charged when the person you disagree with is your best pal. Research suggests that when colleagues who aren’t friends have differences of opinion, outcomes are usually positive in the long run. But when friends clash in the office, it can have a negative effect on the wider team.
And if your work wife friendship falls apart, as some friendships inevitably do, the fallout can be catastrophic. I’m still haunted by a letter written to Observer Magazine agony aunt Mariella Frostrup, in which a woman panicked that her colleague and ex-best friend would expose her WhatsApp messages to the company.
One the opposite side of the coin, Siobhan*, 27, tells me that she regrets getting close to a fellow employee at her first proper job.
“We were inseparable for a few months, but pretty quickly she started telling me intimate details about her life, including the fact that she was having an affair with a married man in a senior position in the team,” she says.
“It made my interactions with him really uncomfortable, because he knew that I knew about them – and I worried that my career progression could be hindered as a result.” Siobhan eventually quit her job and moved to a new company, where she says she’s “mates but not best friends” with her co-workers.
If you’re the kind of person who scuttles out of the office at 5:30pm on a Friday without a backwards glance – or if you’d rather die than tell your desk buddy about last night’s big date – don’t let it get to you. Sometimes we click with our colleagues; sometimes we don’t. As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters. Ultimately, it’s worth remembering what we were all told at school: we’re here to work, not make friends.
* Names have been changed. Images: iStock / Channel 4 / NBC / ABC