Anatomy of the Workplace Romance

“I want a love that’s on the square,” sang Etta James. On the contrary, there’s the professional relationship: transactional, rational, clear-cut. For every love letter, there’s a memo, for every embrace, a death grip of a handshake. The two do not compare.

When work and personal relationships are effectively combined, what occurs is the kind of magic that not only inspires in its professional success but intrigues in its nuance. Even to be a fly on the boardroom or studio wall would not suffice in understanding the dynamic. Consequently, the business venture is provided with the best possible competitive advantage of all: uniqueness. That’s why those who make it work — Charles and Ray Eames, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Melinda and Bill Gates — are so sought after.

The arguments against mixing work and romance are plain as day. The probabilities of bias or defiance could rust at the company’s gears, if there’s disparity in hierarchy. On the other hand, the amount of time spent together at the office could prove a plus for workaholics who would never otherwise see one another. Intimacy could both strengthen and crumble the validity of working with a spouse; knowing each other so well is both a pro and con for communicating criticism. And what of the emotions necessary to both professional and romantic success — curiosity, desire, fascination — that could either propel or pause your process?

Perhaps the most obvious advantage to working with a spouse is the emotional intimacy. The already-established comfort and familiarity encourages honesty in communication, which could be hard-found amongst the tiptoeing imposed by professional decorum. Such is the case of Jessica Hische, a renowned typographic illustrator and her spouse Russ Maschmeyer, an interactive designer at Facebook who embody their signature warmth, humor and expertise in Don’t Fear the Internet, a resource of video tutorials that tackle web design and coding for neophytes. “I think we’ve got our communication signals down to the point where if one of us starts offering feedback but not asking for it, it becomes pretty clear [that it’s unwarranted],” notes Maschmeyer.

The privilege of no-holds-barred criticism is useful for partners whose personalities and processes differ dramatically. This is particularly true in the realm of design, where the unavoidable intimacy of studio environments could prove to be a battleground for introverts. Hische, a self-described extrovert, recalls their initial struggles. “When we first started dating, I was always sharing studios with people. We were never afraid to just walk up behind someone and say we weren’t sure of something. Because Russ hadn’t gone through college [yet] or understand the culture of graphic design, he was fresh to having design criticism around him.”

The presence of somebody trusted and without ulterior motive is a surefire means of building confidence, allowing creative expression to thrive without insecurity. Maschmeyer, touchingly, dedicates the entirety of his success to Hische: “I didn’t even know interaction design until Jessica told me about the program at [New York City’s School of Visual Arts]. Before, I was just doing shitty banner ads for agencies and was not passionate about it at all.”

Questioning the intentions of fellow coworkers is an issue even more apparent in corporate culture, where the industry’s higher financial stakes and standardized nature of the work could make the workplace feel like a figurative minefield. To stand out, one either has to work harder — or sabotage somebody else’s attempt at appearing to do so. As former CEOs of Vodafone Czech Republic, Karla Stephens and Al Tolstoy are familiar with that dynamic. “It’s easier to receive feedback from your partner, because the love that’s there is unconditional. A boss at a big company probably won’t have your best interests at heart because that’s not the nature of the corporate world,” observes Stephens. Reflective of those nuances are the trust games, company retreats, and the relentless flow of paperwork in the human resources department. In contrast, romance seems almost comically simple.

Though that isn’t to say a successful marriage ought to be uni-faceted. Tokii, Stephens and Tolstoy’s newest business venture, applies their experience with strategy and game-playing in the corporate world to romantic relationships. An interactive app that gamifies inter-couple communication, Stephens and Tolstoy developed it in hopes of encouraging the same kind of effort seen in professional relationships in a romantic context. “[In a corporate world], there are endless amounts of courses that were all about your perspective, learning about other people, being sensitive to things. When you look at one another as a couple, there’s very little where you can sit down and analyze in how to strengthen the relationship; whereas in work, you get it all the time. I think relationships can certainly benefit from that,” says Tolstoy.

Frustrations are bound to arise when intimacy opens up communication. In cases of conflict resolution, it is — perhaps ironically — ego that acts as pacifier. In the interest of preserving the love and pride felt about your chosen partner, dwelling on issues is discouraged. “When you’re married, you don’t want to spend a second of your life thinking that person’s an idiot,” says Hische. Tolstoy agrees: “If we’re going to be sleeping in the same bed, we have to be smart about it.”

Compromise is undeniably necessary to any successful collaboration, which can only derive from difference. A vision or talent that is too similar to your partner is a deathtrap for multidimensional, genuinely creative output. This philosophy manifests in the form of Taxi, an advertising agency built on cross-disciplinary collaboration of a four-person team — paralleling the number of passengers possible in a taxicab. The agency’s married founders Paul Lavoie and Jane Hope are living demonstrations of this notion. Combining Lavoie’s storytelling ability and Hope’s maverick eye for design resulted in campaigns such as Telus, iconic for the full realization in its branding. Despite their relationship, their abilities never unified. Rather, they flourished in their contrast.

The uniqueness of their partnership does not escape Lavoie; in fact, it acts as a source of influence. “Of the beautiful story that is Jane and I — creating something that we believed in and wanted to work for — culture is really important. I walk into the office and I feel the notion and spirit of collaboration that is entrenched [at Taxi].” Their twenty-year romance at the agency’s helm set an example and came to define the agency itself, essentially branding the success of their venture.

This seamless unification of life’s dichotomies — colleague and spouse, work and play, home and office — renders balance moot, which all three couples realized by experience. Lavoie and Hope had a rule that every work-related conversation at home incurred a five-dollar penalty; an excellent retirement plan if strictly followed. Similarly, the start-up nature of Tokii makes structure impossible for Stephens and Tolstoy. For Hische and Maschmeyer, due to other professional commitments, their home is the only feasible place to work on Don’t Fear the Internet. The permeation of the professional into the personal and vice versa became a source of inspiration rather than deterrent. The conversation will never tire; the sources of vexation are easily explained; the joy derived from a good day at work mutual. “Frankly, I find myself fortunate. I don’t know what I would do if I came home full of excitement about a problem solved, and my spouse came home in complete dispirit. I find it, in a way, wonderfully selfish to be able to put on the table and share and exchange,” says Hope.

Beyond the practicality and convenience of a shared life, there’s a connection made concrete by the ability to relate to your partner apart from your appeal as a lover or friend. Affection and attraction aside, respect is nurtured. And few will deny the magnetism felt in witnessing talent. Of the primary advantage that rises above all the pitfalls of workplace romance, Hope dispenses wisdom from Joni Mitchell — a woman not unfamiliar to those circumstances:  “Two heads are better than one.”

the author

Caroline Leung