Online Dating Tries to Flirt With the Workplace

A chat bot that tells you if your co-workers have crushes on you, so you never have to stop working, or dating.

C.J. Burton / Getty

Last week, the dating app Feeld released a bot that, theoretically at least, lets you find out if your co-workers have crushes on you. The way it works is this: Once the bot is installed in the office chat platform Slack, you message the bot with the name of your crush. And then you wait. If they have also messaged the bot with a confession of love for you, the bot will let you know you like each other.

The first thing I thought when I read about this was: This is a technology that Laura Linney’s character from Love Actually—a nervous turtlenecked mouse who loves her hot co-worker Karl silently and obsessively from afar—would use if the movie was set in the modern day. “@karl,” she would type into Slack, chewing her nails as she looked at Rodrigo Santoro’s bespectacled avatar and hoped beyond hope that the desperate act would deliver her from her unrequited longing.

Karl and Laura Linney’s character, Sarah, eventually do hook up without the help of the internet. But the Love Actually workplace had a shockingly lax culture around office romances, far more lax than many nonfictional workplaces today.

Enter Feeld? I guess? Feeld had an earlier, harder-to-pronounce incarnation as “3nder,” an app that helped people find threesomes. It has since expanded its mission to include any relationship configuration, and offers 20 different sexuality options to choose from. So why would an app that targets itself toward non-normative relationships choose the workplace as its next frontier?

“Since the beginning Feeld’s mission was to make our society more accepting and open,” Feeld’s founder and “chief inspiration officer” Dimo Trifonov told me in an email. “You can say that Feeld is for forward-thinking humans who don’t put themselves in predefined frameworks.” Society has “tried so hard to make work this cold place where [we] just earn money,” he goes on, “that the concept of bringing feelings there might scare some people. Having feelings for a person is so human, why do people have to keep ignoring them or hiding them just because society says so?”

I think he may be overestimating the taboo on workplace romances. But to the extent that it does exist, this taboo has only been around for as long as there have been protections against office sexual harassment.

A brief history of office romances, courtesy of Moira Weigel, a historian of dating and the author of Labor of Love: “In the 20s, when you have this first influx of women into service positions, there were all these women saying ‘I want to be a stenographer so I can marry my boss.’ And that’s accepted.” Even though many women would also leave those jobs due to unwanted advances from their bosses. An acceptance of workplace romances persisted through the 1960s. In 1964, Helen Gurley Brown, who would go on to be editor of Cosmopolitan, published her book Sex and the Office—a “sisterly guide to the benefits of calculated office flirtation,” as The Boston Globe put it. In the ’60s, Weigel says, “there’s all this sexualized glamor around the career girl.”

Activist campaigns against sexual harassment took off in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment was a violation of the Civil Rights Act. And, Weigel says, it was Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony accusing then-Supreme-Court-nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment that really catapulted the issue into public consciousness and inspired many companies to develop policies against it. But the sexualized glamor never totally went away. “There’s endless movies and novels and pop culture things about people meeting at work,” Weigel says, perhaps in part because the very nature of a workplace romance provides hurdles that are good for dramatic tension. The New York Times published several trend pieces about romances between co-workers during the ’80s and ’90s, sometimes suggesting that since there were more women in the workforce, and since people were working longer hours, “the workplace becomes one of the likeliest places to make a match,” as a 1988 article put it.

And that seems to have been true. According to a study published in 2012, straight people in the ’80s and ’90s were just as likely to meet their partner at work as they were to meet them at a bar, and those methods were second only to meeting through friends. (Same-sex couples were much less likely to meet at work than at a bar or through friends.) But then came the internet. “The rise of the internet has partly displaced not only family and school, but also neighborhood, friends, and the workplace as venues for meeting partners,” the study reads. Workplace couplings basically halved between 1990 and 2009, while internet couplings climbed to just over 20 percent for straight couples and to nearly 70 percent for gay couples. And that’s before Grindr (which launched in 2009) and Tinder (which launched in 2012) and all their followers squeezed dating into every crack and crevice and quiet moment of a single person’s life.

Perhaps it was inevitable that some tech “disruptor” would want to bring online dating into the workplace, the last waking hours remaining where people were actively discouraged from searching for partners. “What’s next?” Weigel asks. “A Fitbit integration? Or a sleep-app integration, where you can be dating while you sleep?” Maybe it would ping people if they showed up in your dreams.

In her 2003 paper “The Sanitized Workplace,” Vicki Schultz, a professor of law and social sciences at Yale University, sides with Trifonov, saying that the repression of intimate relationships at work is detrimental. “The larger question is whether we as a society can value the workplace as a realm alive with personal intimacy, sexual energy, and ‘humanness’ more broadly,” she writes.

Lisa Mainiero, a professor of management at Fairfield University who has been studying office romance for more than 30 years, says that in the past couple decades, the taboo against it has lessened as companies have figured out how to walk the line of policing sexual harassment while leaving room for consensual relationships. According to a survey done by the Society for Human Resource Mangement, fewer HR managers now think workplace romances are unprofessional—29 percent said they were in 2013, compared to 58 percent in 2005.

An increased openness to office romance may be partially attributable to the fact that there are structures in place to deal with sexual harassment, and it may also come from the loosier-goosier nature of many young people’s work lives these days. Working remotely is more common and accepted, and many workers expect to bounce from job to job rather than sticking with a single company for their entire career. Mainiero suspects that’s making them more open to dating co-workers.

But all that is a far cry from a company’s Slack administrator actively installing a bot that encourages employee hookups. The Feeld Slack bot is interesting not because it’s likely to be widely adopted—“This would be a very disruptive technology in the office. I can’t imagine any company accepting this,” Mainiero says—but because it is the intersection between two aspects of life that technology is making increasingly inescapable: work and dating. The ship of online dating and the ship of always-on work culture have finally passed in the night—the night being the dark night of our souls.

“Nobody’s done matchmaking on Slack before—which means if there’s a market for this, we’re the absolute first to market,” Trifonov said in Feeld’s press release. Because of course that’s what it’s really about, scooting the already near-limitless pool of dating prospects closer to the asymptote of infinity.

There’s already a sense in the culture that “you should be both working and dating at all times,” Weigel says. The presence of a Slack app on your phone creates the awareness that you could be called on to work at any moment, and the presence of dating apps on your phone creates the awareness that you could find your soulmate at any moment. Combining the two would only exacerbate “that perpetual sense of possibility, but also the possibility of disappointment,” in Weigel’s words—dating apps’ stock-in-trade.

It’s the possibility that’s anxiety-inducing. It’s the uncertainty that’s exhausting.

And whatever the seeming simplicity of a bot that just reveals mutual interest, it would undoubtedly only create more uncertainty and anxiety. What if you type someone’s name in and six months go by before they reciprocate and your feelings have changed? What if they like you back but just didn’t want to mediate those feelings through the same chat program where their boss is demanding updates on a project and their co-workers are arguing about last night’s Game of Thrones?

Feeld wants companies to let their workers be fully human, but there’s something less than fully human about the binary yes/no swipe-left/swipe-right of dating apps anyway. And introducing the double-opt-in match game of dating apps to the office, a place of known quantities rather than Tinder’s sea of strangers, raises the stakes precipitously. It is the grown-up tech dystopia version of a note passed under a desk, unfolded to reveal two checkboxes: Do you like me? Yes or no.

“But the reality is figuring out whether you like someone or not is a process,” Weigel says. “You might have sort of a crush on someone and then decide actually that you don’t like flirting with them or that you were mistaken about that crush.” If you’ve already typed their name into the bot, though, well, too bad. Feeld’s bot leaves no room for the necessary slow human fumblings of attraction before it pulls the nuclear option. A zany bot-facilitated meet-cute would probably work better in a romantic comedy, where the players can be trusted to stick to the script.