I Am Not Your Work Wife & Our Company is Not a Family

Work and family. Family and work. Work families. Families are work. You’ve probably heard the terms “work wife” or “work spouse” bandied about. Maybe you think of your company as a family, or maybe you keep the two strictly separate in your mind.

Inevitably the lines can get a bit blurry in this ever-connected, work-life integration world we live in. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor do I think it should be.

Work. Period. Family. Period.

They are two distinct groups of people. Two distinct and valuable parts of our lives.

We already spend so much time at work, whether that’s when we’re physically in the office, on our phones, or in our heads. When a company creates its culture around “family”, are employers subconsciously encouraging team members to invest even more of themselves into the organization? Perhaps.

Several years ago, many tech companies began to provide all sorts of amenities (recreation, sleep pods, dining services, and more) to encourage people to stay at work longer. In 2015, Facebook even offered a financial incentive for employees to move closer to the office. I’m all for loyalty and putting in extra time at work when needed… but at what price?

Every company culture is different and maybe some truly do operate like families. I would love to see and hear more of those examples. Again, I imagine many are family-like, but at the end of the day employees are replaceable, and the loyalty that employees feel to their company/”family” may not go both ways.

As leaders or business owners, let’s not confuse our relationships with employees as anything but what they are. They are team members—valuable team members—who may enjoy what they do, but they don’t show up day in and day out because of some real or contrived feelings of passion, love, or loyalty. They’re showing up to be paid for the contribution they make—and it’s a bonus if they truly love what they do and who they do it with every day.

Side note: I highly encourage you to find work that you enjoy doing! But even if you do enjoy it… it’s still work.

Why Companies Are Not Families

Companies are where we go to contribute, learn, grow, build relationships and our career, network, and, most importantly, earn an income. I, for one, don’t know many families that operate like that. In fact, perhaps many of us would spend more time with some of our less than favorite family members if we were getting paid… and then, one might argue, that’s work too!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: you love spending time with your employees, your colleagues are your friends, and oftentimes you would rather spend time with those individuals than anyone else. Am I right? But, let me ask you this: if you were no longer getting paid, how long would you continue showing up and hanging out with those employees or co-workers? Or, would you find another group (i.e. company) that paid you and develop new, close, sometimes family-like working relationships with those individuals? I venture to guess it would be the latter.

Companies are more aptly compared to sports teams than families. You have an owner and a coach who scout for talent, hire team members, let them go when they’re not performing, or trade them when the team needs a different set of talent for their next growth phase. Conversely, the athletes are looking for their next best opportunity: which team is going to let them try out different talents, pay them competitively for their contribution, or help them climb the next rung on the career ladder? Together, these athletes and their coaches have a shared vision and mission and when they accomplish their results, everyone wins. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The societal rules for work groups and family groups are fundamentally different. Why must we confuse the two?

Why Your Assistant is Not Your “Work Spouse”

As a Force Multiplier (Executive Assistant, Chief of Staff, or Personal Assistant), I think it is even more imperative that we draw a line and stand our ground. We are privy to more confidential information at the company than most people and often know about the proposal, or divorce, or death of a loved one before anyone else. There is a privilege and a responsibility with that knowledge. And yet, it still doesn’t make us family.

And don’t even get me started on the term: “work wife.” *Cringe* I am grateful that Adam and I always maintained a mutually respectful and professional partnership. He has never called me his “work wife” nor do we consider the organization a family. However, that hasn’t stopped other people from referring to me as Adam’s work wife. And, believe me, they always stand corrected by the end of the conversation.

I take pride in my work and in my career. I am a businesswoman, a leader, a Chief of Staff, and a strategic partner at my job. I also take pride in my home and family. I am a wife, to my husband Bill. I am a daughter, an aunt, and a dog mom. I’m lucky enough to do work that interests and challenges me and I’m also fully aware I’m doing that work in exchange for income that supports my life and family outside of the office. That’s how capitalism works.

I know that there’s no malicious intent behind calling colleagues “work spouses” and companies “families,” but our words carry weight. By equating our work groups to families and family members, I think we devalue the importance of each of these relationships on both sides.

Furthermore, I think calling Force Multipliers “work wives” or “work husbands” diminishes the impact and value that we bring. It also creates a different, more flippant dynamic between the Executive and their Executive Business Partner. It can signal to external parties that those EAs or PAs are there to serve as friends and “helpers”, not as the powerful strategic partners that I know they are. It can also foster unhealthy boundaries and a lack of respect for the employee’s time, what’s considered work with what’s considered a favor as a friend, and muddle the quality and impact of conversations.

This isn’t to say that Force Multipliers and their leaders can’t have wonderfully dynamic, mutually beneficial, and close relationships. Adam is still one of the people I would go to first to help me work through challenging life decisions. but that conversation would still be shrouded in his relationship to me as a leader, mentor, and coach, not as a friend or family member.

The conversations are different. And that’s okay. In fact, I think they should be. That’s what makes having various types of relationships in our lives so valuable—to get different perspectives and ideas and to enrich the entire human experience.

I am not a work wife. My company is not a family. It doesn’t make me enjoy my job or my co-workers any less. In fact, I appreciate them even more for choosing to be on the same path and working towards the same mission as I am. And still, when I close my laptop for the day, work time is over and family time begins.

Navigating Company Culture and Work-Life Integration

Here are some additional resources you may want to explore as you think about your company’s culture and how you want to show up in it and help shape it:

Adam and I have also discussed this topic in-depth on our podcast. You can listen to the full discussion over 2 episodes here: Part 1, Part 2.

What do you think? Is your company a family? Why or why not?

Original post published on November 24, 2021. Updated for 2024.

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