I recently heard an acquaintance confess that they missed the physical workplace for what seemed like a silly reason: to meet people outside of dating apps. They worried they were now confined to the dating-app universe, stuck in an ecosystem designed for snap judgments. They also worried about sharing their concern out loud.
My acquaintance’s self-consciousness was well-founded: I’ve heard dismissive jokes about people just wanting to make out in the supply closet or flirt in the break room. Especially in this moment, with so many headlines about high-profile workplace-romance scandals and harassment, it can feel a ridiculous or even regressive thing to wish for an office connection.
But it isn’t fair to lump this desire in with abuses of power and ethical wrongs. Nor is it fair to ridicule single folks for having it. This is a longing that deserves a closer look, because the implications extend well beyond single people and dating. This is about the loss of the experience of gradually getting to know someone.
Before I became WeWork’s first director of workplace connection in 2018, I worked in and around the dating industry, first by trying to reimagine the singles event and later in multiple roles at Match.com. Working for a dating site, I was fascinated by how swiftly tech was fundamentally changing the way we start and build relationships, especially because it was in such stark contrast to what I’d learned while doing research for my in-person dating events. Interviewing couples who had met through work, I heard story after story about how someone’s now-partner “grew” on them over the course of multiple interactions across weeks, months, and years. Many of them were able to pinpoint the exact moment, long after first meeting, when they first saw the other person in a romantic light. Often, that distance and delay were what allowed the relationship to simmer and turn into something more.
This kind of romantic connection was already going extinct before the pandemic. A Stanford survey from 2019 highlighted the sharp decrease in relationships that started through shared context or friends, as the dramatic rise of online and app dating made those the dominant origin stories for contemporary couples. But this isn’t about making a judgment so much as it is taking note of dramatic shifts and what gets lost alongside the gains of technology.
It’s great to hear about efforts being made to support the evolving needs of parents and caregivers in the workplace. And in many ways, it’s an easier conversation to have, because it’s a more tangible problem to point to. But as the pandemic once again reshapes how we form relationships with one another, it’s worth listening to the people who are actively searching for a romantic one. They’re the most uniquely positioned to tell you about the state of trying to find strong connections that can endure well, life.
When single folks are saying they miss the possibilities of what happens in an office, here’s what they might really be saying they want:
To notice the person who refills the paper in the copy machine.
To hear someone offer to help carry a box down the stairs.
To feel the consideration of someone holding a door open for you.
To accept someone’s offer to pick up your shift so you can go to that concert.
To look at another in excitement over leftover bagels on the eighth floor.
To point and laugh at a screen over someone’s shoulder.
To smile and appreciate the person who doesn’t talk over others in a meeting.
To clear someone’s coffee mug.
To have their coffee mug cleared.
To admire someone’s patience as they run a tense meeting.
To experience the intimacy of someone building off your idea.
To feel the excitement of who might come into the break room.
In other words: They’re talking about the ordinary, everyday moments of humanity at work. Those are the moments that allow us to see the real, contours of the people around us. They’re the pixels in a slow-moving picture captured across weeks or months. They’re what let us into who someone is, rather than what their profile says. It’s easy for someone to write down in their profile that they’re considerate; it’s another to witness them refilling the copy-machine paper tray even when they’re in a rush.
To be clear, this isn’t an argument for bringing people to the office. But it is a case for looking more closely, and with more empathy, at why relationships seem hard to forge today. The workplace is one of the last remaining places for relationships to take root where the beginning of the story doesn’t start with a snap judgment or a device in your pocket.
So single people aren’t asking for something silly or less important than folks with partners and families. The office can, at times, represent more than a place to do work. It’s an imperfect place where people (and therefore relationships) reveal themselves over time across hallways, gestures, projects, silent moments, and conversations. After the decades we’ve spent making work the de facto town square, it’s worth noticing and appreciating the wants for outside connection as much as the wishes to stay at home.
Lakshmi Rengarajan is the former director of workplace connection at WeWork and is a frequent writer and thinker on the future of work relationships. She is currently co-hosting season 7 of Land of The Giants on Vox Media.