Your coworkers aren’t your family—but you can love them anyway

Don’t be shy.
Don’t be shy.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Your coworkers are not your family. Any career expert worth their salt will tell you that. A workplace can be supportive; it can be tight-knit. But when management envisions the office as a place filled with blood relatives—with all the devotion and dysfunction that family entails—it puts employees at a disadvantage.

Employees who buy into the idea that they’re part of a corporate family may feel more pressure to work nights and weekends. (You’d do anything for your family, wouldn’t you?) They may feel too guilty to ask for a raise. (It’s ungrateful to ask for more, especially when you know times are tough.) Healthy professional boundaries go right out the window. And then, when it comes time for layoffs, suddenly employees find their familial bonds aren’t so strong after all. It’s just business, the boss explains while beckoning the security guard over, promising that HR will send their belongings later in the mail.

I know all this. I know that while I can love a job, a job can never love me back. But when it comes to my relationships with my coworkers—as opposed to my relationship with my job—I don’t try to guard my heart. I think there is a place for love in the office.

There are certainly some folks who treat their jobs like an episode of Survivor: They’re not there to make friends. But for many people in the 21st century, the idea that our work lives can and should be compartmentalized apart from our emotional and personal lives is now passé.

“Home and work have become the two places where people have gone with all the needs that used to belong to community and religion,” psychotherapist Esther Perel observed in an interview with New York Magazine.

Not only do people look to work to provide them with a sense of purpose, many seek out work cultures that give them a feeling of belonging. It’s increasingly common to hear workers say they want to bring their whole selves to the office—whether that means opening up to their colleagues about parenting struggles, forming an after-hours running club, or expressing a gender-nonconforming identity via workplace fashion. “I don’t maintain a ‘work-self’ and a ‘self-self,’ and I don’t aspire to,” Leah Fessler declared in an article for Quartz a few years ago. When people feel comfortable being authentic around one another for eight hours a day, five days a week, it should be no surprise that they form deep connections in the process.

Love might seem to be too strong a word for friendships forged over Google Sheets and quarterly earnings reports. But I’ve noticed myself and my coworkers expressing that sentiment more and more over the past year or so, in the wake of big changes at our company and—tragically—the recent loss of two leaders in our newsroom, executive editor Xana Antunes and special projects editor Lauren Brown, both of whom died from cancer within months of one another.

Lauren and Xana both showed their love for their coworkers in a million small ways: Listening to our frustrations with compassion even when they had a million other things to do, pushing us to tackle projects so ambitious they scared us. I told Lauren that I loved her many times, over text and in person. She didn’t hesitate to say that she loved me, too.

This past fall, giving a speech to our office after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York, Xana told a room full of her colleagues that she loved us. I remember how much it meant that Xana used that word, firmly and without fanfare, and how it felt as if the entire room was leaning forward with collective goodwill, trying to tell her (silently, with our brainwaves) that we loved her back.

Not that talk of love at work is always linked to tragedy. Quartz’s former global news editor, John Mancini, spoke of love at an editorial meeting last fall, describing the feeling he got working at a place where people genuinely cared about one another. I’ve said I love you to the young woman I mentored, to a colleague turned travel buddy, to a coworker with whom I now talk pretty much daily, weekday or not. The love that I experience on the job comes from the strength of individual relationships, but also from the feeling that I’m part of a community.

And yet it can feel a little embarrassing to admit to caring so much about my coworkers. Our culture has a tendency to minimize work friends; even that descriptor seems to demote them to a second tier, apart from our real-life ones. I worry whether I’m too attached, and whether that speaks to certain vacancies elsewhere in my personal life. Back in 1977, in the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the show’s protagonist Mary Richards delivered a speech to her on-screen coworkers that arose from similar anxieties.

“Well I just wanted you to know, that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. And last night I thought, ‘What is a family anyway?’ They’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me.’”

There’s that family word again: Careful, Mary. But her larger point stands. Relationships formed in the office are no less genuine than relationships outside of it; they’re as meaningful as we feel them to be. There’s no need to enforce a hierarchy of love, with coworkers ranked all the way down at the bottom. Love isn’t a limited resource.

Nor does the fact that friendships may change when colleagues move onto other jobs mean that the connections weren’t real. Our friendships often change with circumstances, whether that means graduating from college or moving out of the apartment we shared with a roommate. We may see each other less often, but the love remains.

Of course, companies can find insidious ways to capitalize on the bonds among coworkers—as with startup culture’s fondness for beer kegs and ping-pong tables, which coincidentally persuade people to stay in the office late into the evening. But platonic and communal love among coworkers can also be a bulwark against the most dispiriting aspects of corporate culture. The strength of our social bonds, after all, are the single most important factor in determining our happiness and wellbeing. When you have love at work, a bad day becomes that much more bearable. And if a lot of your colleagues are having bad days at work too, the fact that you’re close means that you’re that much likelier to get together and figure out a course of collective action.

I think we don’t talk much about love at work because we’ve been conditioned to think that acknowledging one another’s humanity is somehow unprofessional. But in a healthy workplace, signs of affection pop up everywhere—in baked goods left on one another’s desks or shared grins in a meeting where you know exactly what the other person is thinking. One of my coworkers has said that she thinks of our team’s praise for each other’s work, which we jot down in a shared document once a week, as little love notes.

Last week, on Valentine’s Day, I told my Quartz at Work teammates that I was writing this piece. A few hours later I looked up from my desk to see the three of them watching me from across the office, huge, sneaky smiles on their faces. That’s odd, I thought. I smiled and waved back. One of them pointed at her lips and gave me a thumbs-up—a way of telling me that she liked my lipstick, which was actually her lipstick, which I’d gotten from another coworker she’d passed it along to first.

A few minutes later I was called to the front desk, and learned what those sneaky smiles were about. They’d left me a giant bowl packed with pink marshmallow Peeps and Reese’s Peanut Butter Hearts, a unicorn-shaped ice cube tray and a squishy toy to squeeze when I was feeling stressed. It was an unbelievably thoughtful gesture, and I knew what they were trying to say.

We may not be a family. But families don’t have dibs on love.