Sex at home may be on the wane, but the office romance is alive and well

A recent “sexual health study” – the Australian Study of Health and Relationships – found that Australians are having less sex at home. University of NSW sexual health researcher (nice work if you can get it) Professor Juliet Richters believes she has the reason for that.

“We think it might be the intrusion into people’s home lives of work – checking your work emails last thing before you go to bed [and] taking your laptop to bed,” she explains.

Sounds plausible. The scene is easily imagined. “Sorry dear, it’s an email regarding the Henderson account; I’d best deal with it, my promotion is riding on this.” Sex versus the Henderson account? The Henderson account it is, especially if you’re a self-important tosser.

But perhaps there’s another reason why Australians are more interested in their laptops than their partners’ laps when at home – and at this point it should be stressed that the survey concerned itself with heterosexual couples. Which either means that homosexual couples are banging away like gates in a storm, or they’re going to be part of a separate study.

So, back to John and Betty. Perhaps it’s not so much about the intrusion of work as work is where the action is.

Whatever else may be happening at home, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the office romance is alive and well.

The office romance is very much part of the office furniture. And very often between or on the furniture. Which might be the only thing going for clean desk policies. It saves a lot of packing and unpacking for those amorous colleagues who like to give true meaning to “hot desking”.

For as long as there have been workplaces, so too have there been office trysts. The modern workplace is arguably even more conducive to runaway passions. People are spending longer at work and working under intense pressure. It’s hardly surprising that colleagues working in close proximity to each other for such long periods will eventually find themselves moving from spreadsheets to bedsheets.

At it like public servants

The public service is a particular hotbed of industry. Of a sexual kind, that is. Real industry is a little less common. Our tax dollars still mostly go to funding meetings whose primary purpose is to decide on more meetings, reports that conclude further study is required, and workshops aimed at increasing productivity while keeping bureaucrats away from their desks for days at a time.

Public servants generally like to marry public servants, so government departments are like dating services with lunch breaks. And never let it be said that public servants don’t know the meaning of the word efficiency: bureaucrats find that the workplace is not only a useful place to find a life partner, but an illicit lover as well. It’s what is known as a “one stop shop” in the private sector.

The interstate or overseas conference is a boon to workplace romances. If the PITs – partners in tryst – are senior enough, there is the happy and regular coincidence of both needing to attend the same conference.

Even when there is no conference, it is an easy ruse to claim to one’s partner that there is, thus conveniently explaining one’s absence from the spousal home.

The risk inherent in any office romance is being caught out. Not that there is such a thing as a secret office romance; it’s simply understood that nobody is supposed to know and generally everyone plays along. Whoever coined “open secret” must have had the office romance in mind.

The following delicious yarn no doubt has many variants in workplaces across the land, but it will illustrate how easy it is for office romances to come unstuck.

A middle-ranking “team leader” who was having an affair with a female colleague, a member of his team, decided it was time to step up, and spice up, his office romance. That’s when he hit on the idea of the bogus conference.

Whenever he wished to spend the night with his office consort he informed his wife that he had to fly interstate for a meeting.

The subterfuge extended to him arriving at work with an overnight trolley bag, a matter of derision for all those who knew the score. The scheme unravelled when the philanderer’s wife rang one afternoon to enquire which hotel he was staying at. Unfortunately, one of the few people who did not know about the deception – or more likely she did – informed his wife: “Oh, I can see him at his desk now, I’ll put you through.”

Office romance bingo

People involved in office romances go to great lengths to keep their relationships secret. Everyone knows, but the charade plays on: the meaningful glances across the partitions, exaggerated attempts to keep a po face when passing in the corridor and, for public servants, the furtive brushing of cardigans in the tea room.

The elaborate secrecy can be tiresome but it can also be entertaining in its absurdity. The carefully staged separate arrivals and departures, the angry disagreements at meetings to demonstrate their professional objectivity, the cunning small talk: “Did you have a good weekend?”

Those in the know can amuse themselves with Office Romance Bingo at meetings. Furtive glance across the table: tick. Knowing smile when the other speaks: tick. Double entendres, “That’s a good idea, Malcolm… maybe we should suck it and see”: tick. Or yick.

There is something about furniture that office romantics find irresistible. The boss’s desk is a favoured after-hours pit stop, likewise desks of unpopular colleagues.

The growing popularity of open-plan offices means that those who prefer to be surrounded by four walls – rather than 40 partitions – when interfacing with a colleague don’t have as many options. The meeting room is always a favourite. Here the boardroom table becomes the office furniture equivalent of the king-size bed.

The executive and his PA who decided one fateful night to use the boardroom table as their place of congress thought they were safe from prying eyes but alas were caught in flagrante delicto by a colleague who happened to drop by. Mutterings about working late were exchanged and no more was said. Except for the giant love-heart that appeared on the meeting-room whiteboard the next day.

For three people at least, attending meetings around that table would never be the same again.

As long as there are offices, the office romance will continue to blossom. Unfortunately the office is an endangered species. As companies increasingly shrink their workspaces, preferring employees to work “off site”, the office romance may go the same way as the filing cabinet and the tea break.

Researchers may find that’s when “sexual health” in the home stages a remarkable recovery.