How to keep a strong relationship with your ‘work spouse’ in quarantine

When Christopher Rim and Wafa F. Muflahi met seven years ago as undergraduates at Yale, they became close friends, which evolved into a strong working relationship. For the past five years they’ve been colleagues at education and college consulting firm Command Education in Midtown, where Rim’s the CEO and Muflahi’s a partner and senior program director.

They’ve become what’s colloquially known as “work spouses” — they’re not married, but professional partners who have each other’s backs, in recession and in wealth, no questions asked.

“When we’re in Hong Kong, I’m really bad at jet lag. I can’t get through the first day or two,” says Rim. “Wafa has no problem, so she’s filled in for some of the calls I have to be on.”

As Muflahi quarantines in Park Slope and Rim in Tribeca, constant communication is the norm by Slack, e-mail, texts, WhatsApp, FaceTime, phone calls, Zoom and Instagram.

“It’s not in person, but still feels like we’re connected,” says Muflahi.

Studies have shown that a deep connection with a work colleague is valuable regarding job satisfaction, performance and engagement. Plus, social connections built upon trust, respect and understanding are key to reducing burnout and combatting loneliness.

Dorie Clark, who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Stand Out: How To Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” (Portfolio), says that “work can be challenging in the best of times and especially when we’re dealing with a pandemic and major economic uncertainty. Having a work spouse enables work to be a supportive and joyful environment, which can make all the difference in your happiness and success.”

According to a survey conducted by, provider of public relations and digital marketing resources, 63 percent of respondents said they would be more productive in lockdown with their work spouse than their real spouse. One-fourth said they miss their work spouse during quarantine more than they would miss their partner.

Scott Miller, executive vice president of thought leadership at FranklinCovey and author of “Management Mess to Leadership Success” (FranklinCovey), cautions that while it’s helpful to have a best friend at work, “work spouse” has some caveats when you’re married or in a committed relationship.

“In professional and personal relationships, it’s vital to declare your intent and clarify expectations,” he says. “This applies regardless of gender and sexual preference. If you’re open and honest about the limited, focused role your work spouse or best friend plays in your professional life, you’re likely to minimize suspicion or jealousy. Talk straightforwardly so that innuendo, casual conversation or other issues don’t present conflict.”

For Valerie Berlin and Jonathan Rosen, principals and co-founders of communications, digital and creative agency Berlin Rosen in the Financial District, there are no innuendos or family conflicts. They’ve worked with each other for nearly 20 years — in fact, Berlin introduced Rosen to his wife. The co-founders own separate homes in both Park Slope and Montauk and their kids call them Aunt and Uncle.

Since they live “hilariously close to each other” (eight blocks apart) the Rosens and Berlins are quarantining together. “We agreed early on with that idea of a bubble — we’d let our kids see each other, and we’d see each other.”

During the week, they speak between a dozen and 20 times, navigating topics like remote work and communicating with employees.

“Running a business with someone is like a marriage,” says Rosen. “You’re dealing with real, intense decisions and taking care of people and [making] judgment calls. You have to have a lot of faith in your partner. Just like in a regular marriage, you know underneath that there’s fundamental trust and support.”

For work spouses not at their level, there are ways to nurture your relationship when you’re working apart. “Create a specific time in your week for ‘venting’ to that person to get things off your chest,” says Leah Weiss, PhD, lecturer at Stanford Business School and author of “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind” (Harper Wave). Then, “You don’t have to carry them alone or suppress them which leads to additional stress.”

Weiss recommends sending notes to your work spouse when you think of him or her. “Develop a ritual — have a [virtual] cup of tea together to start the week and talk about priorities or take a walking meeting to debrief on a Friday,” she says.

While thoughtfully reaching out is important, so is re-creating what you miss most — like laughter. Theresa O’Rourke, editorial director at Remedy Health Media, a digital health platform in Midtown, is working from home in Cranford, NJ, while her boss, Amy Keller Laird, executive vice president of brand and audience development, is in Pelham, NY.

“In the office, I sit in a hub that has amazing views, and Amy will hear me laughing, and then a lot of times, she’ll come over. I just miss that so much,” says O’Rourke.

Maintaining simultaneous conversations is the norm. “A million Zooms a day,” she says. “We’re probably more in contact than we ever have been. I told Amy we should renew our vows when we’re back in the office.”

“One colleague said she saw us as sisters,” says Laird. “We’d snap at each other and then we’d be friends again in five seconds. I think it creates for the best ideas because one of us isn’t afraid to say, ‘Well, I don’t like that.’”

But what if one of the work spouses has been furloughed or let go?

If you’re the work spouse still standing, “be sensitive to their needs,” says Clark. “Have conversations about how you can be most helpful. Sometimes all they’ll want is a good listener. Keep reaching out with care if they’re down, and show them that you value the relationship, even if you’re no longer working together.”

“You have a chosen family in New York City. I feel super lucky that by happenstance I ended up in a very good set of people, my work wife and my home wife,” says Rosen. “That’s one of the greatest things about the city.”

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