Office romances are hard-wired into us – I wouldn't be here without one

Employers may frown upon it but finding love in the workplace is as inevitable as it is powerful

The Office romance: Tim and Dawn's relationship was watched by millions in the hit UK sitcom
The Office romance: Tim and Dawn's relationship was watched by millions in the hit UK sitcom

This week marks my 25th wedding anniversary although it’s 27 years, almost to the autumnal day, since I first looked across a busy London magazine office at a brooding man in a Shetland jersey and had the premonition, “I’m going to marry you.” 

What made this odder still was the fact I was happily dating someone else at the time. However, after a series of chats over the photocopier, work lunches, wistful stares and a day trip to Cambridge, it was clear my destiny lay with my colleague. We started stepping out, but took a couple of months to tell workmates. I wouldn’t say the editor was happy about the situation, but that had more to do with wounded machismo than work protocol. As the mag’s number one seducer, he felt female employees should succumb to him first. He’d met his official girlfriend (he also had three mistresses) while she’s been working as his PA. In fact, that particular office proved such a crucible for new relationships that in the parent company it was known as “The Love Ship.”

But if I were a young person in today’s work environment my chance of finding workplace love would be practically nil. The #MeToo movement meant there was a much-needed crackdown on powerful men exploiting women in the workplace. But some companies have become so paranoid about the ramifications of office affairs – which can bring expensive lawsuits in their wake – they’ve banned out-of-hours consensual liaisons. Or forbidden them unless the participants have informed bosses and obtained their consent. The world’s largest money manager, Blackrock, has a new policy that states all employees must disclose “all personal relationships with other Blackrock workers or contingent workers, as well as personal relationships with employees of a service provider, vendor, or other third party (including a client).”

The problem with this is that new relationships are tentative and fragile. Almost no one can be certain from the get-go – even with premonitions – that you’ll be compatible. A natural sense of privacy envelops most new lovers, meaning they want to hide their fledgling intimacy from the rest of the world, so they can let love blossom without other people offering opinions. 

This is even truer in the workplace, where gossip can distort sincere intentions and you don’t want others knowing about a tendresse that flounders within weeks. It means companies are acting like the most controlling of Victorian patriarchs, asking about love-birds’ intentions and prospects before they’ve even got going. This is all doubly dire in the age of coronavirus, where single people are ferociously lonely after working from home for months. Then, when they do get to the office, there’s an embargo on spontaneous affairs.

Until this point in time, the workplace was such a traditional mating ground that you might as well have called David Attenborough in to voice a documentary. Two recent surveys (one for National Rail and the other for Total Jobs) found that a fifth of the UK’s adult couples had met their partner at work. And a 2013 survey carried out to mark the release of the eighth series of US sitcom How I Met Your Mother, revealed office romances were more likely than any other kind (including dating sites and meeting via friends) to lead to marriage.

Rowan Pelling thanks an office romance for her 25 years of marriage Credit: Daily Telegraph

And no wonder. Meeting someone in a pub or at a party is all about instant attraction but the workplace romance is a far slower burn. The flames of attraction are built gradually as you see a colleague in the raw, without booze-goggles. You’ll observe the way they deal with stress, their treatment of other people and their temperamental quirks. The first time I saw my husband I thought he was a handsome, intense oddball, which was true, but after two months of working together I also knew he was the kindest, cleverest and most trusted person working on that magazine.

More than this, I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for an office romance. My parents met in Ghana while both were working for the construction company Howard Doris. She was a secretary and he was the company’s quartermaster, 27 years her senior. Their relationship was so clandestine they didn’t tell a soul at work. Not even when they sloped off to get married one lunch hour, although a colleague remarked to Mum, “You look very smart, Hazel. What are you doing for lunch?” 

When the news slipped out her boss sent a furious telegram to the London office: “That swine Pelling has married Hazel.” My parents’ union lasted 24 years – until dad’s death in 1988 – and produced five children.

Most bans on romance end in tears – just ask the Montagues and Capulets. If Blackrock wants another generation of financiers to staff their offices they’d better turn a blind eye to some of that illicit passion.