Hangovers, heartaches, horrible meetings: why we all need ‘work wives’

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You never forget your first. I met Abi in early 2009 when we were assistants on a fashion magazine. We sized each other up like a pair of cats on a suburban lawn, then quickly became inseparable. She: Mancunian, funny and forthright. Me: in her words, “Quite posh, aren’t you?”

We were on the bottom rung of a monthly publication that specialised in celebrities and style. It would be fair to say we were not great experts in either field. One aspect of the job involved going to parties to get quotes from famous people. At one, we attempted to interview a pop star, only for our confused interviewee to tell us she was in fact a makeup artist.

I feel like I’ve missed that spot where you introduce yourself to someone and get to know them as friends

We were both a little messy in that particular way early twentysomethings can be, when the possibilities of life feel overwhelming and the hangovers don’t help. We could get anxious about small things, and sometimes took feedback too personally. Our office was one of those glass, open-plan affairs with nowhere to cry, so if we needed to let it all out we’d find a corner of the fashion cupboard, and stand by the rows of designer shoes and weep.

At lunch, we would hit the canteen to pick over the urgent issues of the day: was the email E sent a bit passive-aggressive? What was the big meeting everyone had disappeared into about? We became each other’s therapist, sense-checker, party buddy, emergency tampon dealer and relationship counsellor. In short, Abi was my original work wife: I can recall more about that first formative year of office life with her than any other since.

People heading into the working world are often told about the value of having a mentor, someone senior in the same industry to ask for advice. But when I look back at my 20s, I realise it’s my female peers who had the biggest impact on me: Abi, Chloe, Hannah, Tracy. I’m not sure those relationships made me better at my job, but I do know they made me happier.

View image in fullscreen Illustration: Léonie Després/The Guardian

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When she was still at university, Sara, 22, had a clear vision of her working life. There would be a smart wardrobe, a busy, open-plan office and drinks with friends after work. But a month after her graduation in May, she landed her first job, as a marketing assistant on a Muslim dating app, and entered the workplace from home: “It was so strange when I first started. I didn’t know who to go to, who to talk to,” she says.

Her new colleagues were friendly, but navigating the role virtually wasn’t always natural: “I’m more of a face-to-face person – I come alive around other people. It’s different through video calls. I don’t like showing my face as much, so sometimes I just don’t turn the camera on.” Her office has a compulsory “video on” policy only for the weekly all-company meeting, which Sara is grateful for as she wears a headscarf (“Otherwise I’d be putting it on and off all through the day.”) Going into the office for a single day in the summer to help shoot an advert was a gamechanger, and gave her a glimpse of what she was missing: “There’s just a different energy when you’re together in person,” she says. “It’s so much more motivating.”

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I’d like to be in an office now, way more than before. I think you only really know what you miss out on when it’s gone

Nicholas, 22, never thought the spare bedroom at his parents’ house in Surrey would be his launchpad into the working world. He got a job offer in September 2019 to join a large tech company this spring. “It didn’t really feel like I had started,” he says of those early days in March. “I was doing training and meeting people online, but it wasn’t like being in an office.” It was only months later, when he stepped into his building for the first time, that things really clicked: “Before, I’d always felt part of the family, but more like a third party.” He says being an extrovert has helped: “My sisters say I could talk to a brick wall, which is lucky in times like this, but it’s definitely strange that I still haven’t met my manager.”

For both Nicholas and Sara, their odd start has been made easier by thoughtful colleagues. On his first day, Nicholas’s workplace gave him a “buddy”, who had started a few months earlier, to show him the ropes – thanks to their daily catchups, he feels close to him, even though they still haven’t met in person. After their day in the office together, Sara joined “a little [WhatsApp] girl group” with two other junior colleagues, “where we video call each other to discuss non-work things” and “text each other if we need to let off steam”.

Other workplaces have not been so accommodating. “I was so stressed out in the first few weeks, I actually got sick and considered quitting,” Hannah, 24, tells me over the phone from Munich. After studying in the UK, she moved back to her native Germany to start a paid internship with a global consumer company in March. She had just one day in the office before the country locked down. She couldn’t move back to her parents’ home as she had signed a six-month lease on a flat, plus the company wanted her to stay in the city in case the office opened up again. It was like “being thrown into cold water”, she says. “They let me decide stuff that I would never let an intern decide – no supervision, no oversight, just me doing my thing.”

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Before starting the job, Hannah had banked on making friends through work as she didn’t know anyone else in the city, but lonely days locked down away from the office dented her confidence. “I feel like I’ve missed that spot where you introduce yourself to someone and get to know them [as friends],” she says. “I’d like to be in an office now, way more than before. I think you only really know what you miss out on when it’s gone.”

The people we work with are like family: we don’t choose them, and we spend a third of our lives with them. But if 2020 has turned us into one of those families who spend all day watching things on different screens in separate rooms, it might be the youngest members who suffer the most.

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‘By the way’ moments are crucial for career development – morsels of reassurance tossed over a desk

“The generation starting their careers now are going to need a lot of attention,” says organisational psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts, who specialises in workplace resilience. “There was a big focus on the difficulties for parents working from home in lockdown,” she says. “I don’t think there’s been much on people coming into the world of work and the impact this will have on their long-term careers.” Roberts says this is because we learn the most, particularly in our early days in a job, through “non-verbal cues” – absorbing a workplace culture through everything from a colleague’s body language to the way the desks are laid out.

Roberts says that casual, “by the way” moments are crucial for early career development – morsels of reassurance or feedback tossed over a bank of desks. There were many things I loved about my second work wife, Chloe, starting with the fact that she was plugged into the mains system of office gossip. “So,” she would say, all businesslike as we strode out for coffee, “this is what I know.” But I mostly loved how unflappable she was. “It’s fine, Luce – here’s what we’re going to do,” she would say with a wave of her hand when I went to her with a problem.

It’s hard to get that reassurance when working from home, even for those who aren’t new to the workplace. “The idea of picking up the phone and calling someone to ask a question feels significantly more intrusive than just leaning over a desk,” says Toby, 28, who started a job as an insurance underwriter from his London flat in March. “I ended up trying to work things out for myself.” Another graduate says she was so paranoid about looking incompetent to the boss she had never met that she sat on a task she couldn’t work out for days: “I just didn’t feel there was anyone to ask.”

Illustration: Léonie Després/The Guardian

People in their 20s also get more from the social side of office life than any other age group. Anya, 23, is based in Cumbria and has been working in the charity sector since she was 16. The job she started remotely this summer was a difficult switch: “I went from having a massive team around me to being in my tiny house, just by myself every day.” Her former office was in a countryside location near a pub, where she would decamp with colleagues after hours for pints and chips. They also went for long hikes together. “There is no better bonding than being completely lost in the driving rain, 10 miles from your car,” she laughs. She still talks “pretty much every day” with her old work wives, and though she likes her new colleagues, working remotely means “it’s really hard to connect on that personal level”. She thinks many of her peers also feel extra pressure while working remotely because the entry-level job market is so competitive.

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According to figures from UK graduate website Milkround, just 18% of graduates have secured a job this year compared with the usual 60%. Anya worked in a cafe to make ends meet before landing her current job. “Roles I applied for where I’d normally expect to get an interview, they were saying, ‘We’ve had 800 other applicants.’” So for the minority who are able to get a job, having someone close to share everyday anxieties with has arguably never been more important.

While she waits to go back to office life, Anya has found a substitute “work wife” in her neighbour: “We stop to have lunch at 12.30, then we’ll meet for a walk and it’ll be, ‘Oh, I had a nightmare meeting this morning – this happened.’

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Few of us can draw a perfectly neat line between our work and home lives; the work wife is a relationship like no other because it bridges the personal and professional. “I don’t think I can fully convey how important my work wives have been to me,” says Ella, 37, an ad sales worker from Liverpool. “In my 20s, they helped clear up messy hangovers and heartaches. But as we’ve all grown up and begun to deal with more ‘adult’ problems, they’ve seen me through some really tough times.”

Ella counts herself lucky that she has found a shoulder to cry on in each of the offices she has worked in: “I will never forget Sally whisking me away to a fire exit stairwell as I was struggling with the aftermath of my miscarriage, or Nina taking me for large glasses of wine and chips at our local Café Rouge after work as I tried to cope with my dad’s cancer.” She is now working from home and misses those moments of intimacy with colleagues. “It’s just not the same over Slack, is it? And you can’t really be that open over ‘social Zooms’.”

But even social Zooms, says 29-year-old London lawyer Emma, who started a new job remotely in April, are better than nothing. Like Ella, in her old job she had a work wife she could share everything with; their friendship grew organically through chats in the kitchen and walks out for lunch. “When I started my current job, it was very weird having to consciously think about building relationships like that – it felt a bit more forced than just chatting while you’re making tea.” But she discovered that a little bit of contact goes a long way. “Recently, I started organising weekly, 15-minute coffee meetings on Zoom with a colleague,” she says. “I wasn’t sure about it at first, but the difference it has made to my week has been huge. It’s easy when you’re alone at home to feel stressed about the work, because work is all you’re doing. After those catchups, it felt like a weight had lifted.”

Some names have been changed.