It's 6pm on a Thursday and Sasha* has just opened a bottle of wine. Slipping off her stilettos, she pours a glass and pads over to Amy*, who is crying over the fight she just had on the phone with her husband. Sasha hands Amy the glass, puts her arm around her and tells her she'll be OK; after all, Sasha's boyfriend cheated on her last year and look at her now! She's dating up a storm on RSVP. Inspired by the commiseration, Amy says, "You realise, if I leave him, I'm going to need a raise." Startled, Sasha replies, "I guess we'll talk about that in your next performance review."
To some women who work in formal office environments this might seem unusual – even borderline offensive – but for many of us this scene is utterly familiar, and yet another sign of the increasingly elastic boundaries between the personal and professional. As this new population of office families emerges, experts are battling over the potential benefits and downfalls. Do these relationships make us love our jobs – and, indeed, our whole lives – more? Or are they just another piece of evidence that our culture is giving ourselves over completely to our companies, abandoning our families along the way?
The reasons for this are myriad and debatable, but, surprisingly, the shift doesn't seem to be a response to a longer working day. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women who work full time are working fewer hours than they did in 2000 – about 36 hours a week. But almost 20 per cent of us are on call – meaning we can be reached wherever we are after hours, thereby tailoring our working hours and, subsequently, our personal lives around the demands of our jobs. And while it looks like we're not working that many extra hours, the truth is, we don't like to be away from the office for very long. A 2011 survey by Tourism Australia showed that employees are hanging on to 118 million days and $33 billion in accrued annual leave, with one in four Australian full-time workers having more than 25 days of leave up their sleeve.
In part, this desire to live at our offices is a function of job security. The Australian standard of living is at an all-time high, and we've just emerged from a global financial crisis. But this still doesn't explain why our style of relating in the office, once likened to a barbecue, has now turned into a slumber party.
"We all need to be connected," states organisational psychologist and business coach Kathryn McEwen. "We're hardwired as humans to be part of a herd; to have that connectedness with whatever group we’re spending most of our time with, and quite often that turns out to be a work group."
This is certainly something Deborah*, who works in public relations, can relate to. "In my last job it felt like my main duty was to soothe the staff. I had to take them out for coffee in the middle of the day and reassure them that 'everything happens for a reason'," she says. "It got to the point where I couldn't criticise anyone's ideas without someone crying or fighting with me about it."
"You're treating your colleague like your big sister because you probably don't see your big sister all that much," observes McKewen. "We've got dislocated families and you see your colleagues far more than you would your family anyway, so they become substitute siblings." But, we're not doing our staff any favours by holding back criticism, she adds, as it can inhibit a junior staffer's ability to grow. "Fierce conversations about ideas tend to sharpen them."
Stephanie Thompson, principal at Insight Matters corporate psychology, says that finding yourself in a familial role instead of a professional one is not uncommon. "It's more prevalent in female-dominated workplaces for managers to turn into mothers, where those 'soft skills', such as empathy and emotional intelligence, are valued and encouraged." Which, she argues, isn't necessarily a bad thing. What began with "Casual Friday", the idea of making work more like home is encouraged by corporations that have gyms and cafes on-site. "It appears to be a reaction to the old style of business," says Thomp-son. "If you're very formal, it can be demoralising for the team and you can miss out on a lot of creativity." Moreover, overly formal workplaces can increase stress, the long-term effects of which can be fatal.
Read more of 'Has Your Workplace Become Your Home?' in this month's marie claire!