5 Tips for Working From Home with Your Partner

Mar 26, 2020

When Kyle moved in with me in 2016, we had a rocky start.  Moving in together is always an adjustment, but when both partners work from home, it becomes a trial by fire.

We didn’t do well sharing the same space all of the time, and it took us a while to figure out how to live and work in the same house without killing each other.  Sometimes it feels like we’re still figuring it out, but we’ve hammered out a lot of the kinks.

And now that the pandemic has forced so many of you into the same situation, we thought we might offer some advice.  Here are five tips for working and living with your partner full-time.

**Please note that these tips are designed for people working from home with their partner sans kids.  They are not one-size-fits all, and will likely be woefully inadequate for those of you currently home schooling, working, and living in the same space.  You have my deepest sympathies, and should we ever meet in person once this is over, the drinks are on me.

No. 1) Carve Out Separate Work Spaces.  To whatever extent possible, try to create an area where each of you can work away from the other.  Separate work areas will improve focus and help productivity.  Separate spaces will also minimize the small annoyances that crop up when you’re working in the same area.

No room in your living area for two work spaces?  Create a ‘don’t bother me’ spot or a signal that you need space/quiet.  I once used a wet floor sign to let Kyle know that I was on a conference call and he couldn’t come downstairs. Many people often swear by noise cancelling headphones.

Need to maintain client confidentiality or privacy?  Get a white noise machine to prevent others in the home from accidentally overhearing your calls.

Also, if there’s a ‘good’ work space and a sub-optimal work space, learn to share the good one.  Maybe odds and even days or mornings and afternoons, even just when the other person has something big.  When we lived in a home with one office and one dining room table, a lot of resentment developed because one of us had the luxury of space and privacy and the other one didn’t.

No. 2) Establish Boundaries.  If you take nothing else from this post, learn this: spending all day, every day with your partner will strain your relationship.  Don’t confuse the hours that you work in proximity to one another with quality couple-time.

When you share a workspace, you need to maintain some emotional distance from one another during the workday.  So from 9-to-5 Kyle is no longer my husband, he is my loud-talking colleague in the office next door.  I don’t stroll into his office to ask him to take out the trash; he doesn’t breeze into mine for a chat.  If we need something, we do what we would do if we didn’t work 4-feet from one another, we text.

Creating that mental and emotional space was hard at first, but we’re both more productive and focused because of it.  And when we emerge from our separate areas and headspaces at closing time, we don’t feel like we spent all day together, which has been good for our relationship.

No. 3) Communication is Key. Your partner cannot read your mind.  If you need something, sharing the same space makes expectation setting and communication critical.

Plan out your day and make your partner aware of any big meetings or projects that require focus or demand quiet.  If something is really big, send a calendar invite to remind your partner that you need extra consideration during this time.  Some couples meet weekly to set up a schedule so that everyone is clear about which meetings/work can’t be interrupted.

Also, don’t let problems fester.  The longer a behavior persists, the harder it is to stop.  If something isn’t working, say so quickly.

No. 4) Work, Not Housework.  Just because your partner is home, doesn’t mean they can take a break from their 9-to-5 to do housework.  If there’s laundry or dishes to be done or trash that needs to be taken out, ask them to do it after work.  Just like you would if you were both going to an office.

As crazy as it makes me, sometimes I have to ignore Kyle’s lunch mess or the pile of laundry on the floor because it’s the middle of the work day.  If you wouldn’t ask your partner to come home from the office to do it, you can’t ask them to do it during work hours.  Simply let them know (via text) that you would like it done and let them decide when they can make time to do it.

No. 5) Become Deaf.  When a reporter asked Ruth Bader-Ginsburg the secret to a happy marriage, she said it was ‘good to be a little deaf.’  This is the best advice I can offer to people sharing workspace with their partner for the first time.

For many of the issues you will encounter when working from home together, there is no hack, no easy solution that you can buy your way into.  The only solution will be to change your own thinking and develop the discipline to not let sharing work space adversely impact your relationship.

You’re going to get annoyed by small habits and behaviors you wouldn’t normally see.  You’re going to overhear things that you wish you hadn’t.  You’re going to get so sick of them that even the sound of their voice upsets you.  Sometimes the only solution for these issues will be changing how you react to them.  So every now and  again, just choose to be deaf.

If you have experience sharing work space with your partner, or you’ve developed some coping mechanisms you’d like to share, leave them in the comments.

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  1. E says:

    The only advice I have for those with kids at home too is to see if there is a way you and your partner can have a touch base either Sunday night or every weeknight and review calendars to see who has meetings when, and if there is a conflict, who can reschedule in order to watch the kids. For when we couldn’t move the meeting,, then it was either a coin toss or determine who needed to speak or had a role in the meeting versus listening.

    It’s not perfect and it doesn’t always work, but the vast majority of my team including my boss is in the same boat so I have given grace to myself and them because we are all struggling with this new “normal”.

    Love to hear other suggestions!

    • Monica T says:

      Yes to grace! Distance learning is going so-so so far, but I’m not going to make us all miserable over some assignments not getting done, especially when so much is busy work in Kindergarten. This adjustment is hard on everyone.

    • J says:

      Definitely, it’s all about grace and understanding that my team is all different stages of life and have differing needs because of it. I’m the one with preschoolers, so our goal is to get the kids to do one thing the school set out for us a day. If we can get that one thing done, we’re good. It allows us to be flexible with our kids while being able to reorganize our schedules to meet the needs of our jobs.

  2. Katel says:

    Even it seems like one more thing to do take the time to carve out separate spaces/temporarily repurpose areas of your home. I share a home with a retired mother who pushed to rethink our space by day 2 so that it worked better for our new normal. I’m a procrastinator and was putting it off until at least a weekend. Now we both have zones that meet our needs.

  3. Kayla says:

    Day one of both being home we bought an office chair, set up a folding table, and turned our guest room into a temporary home office for my husband. I am at the dining room table, my work set up is far more compact than his. I didn’t know if it was necessary but now I am so thankful that we did this. Having two separate spaces to spread out and take calls during the day has helped create an ounce of normalcy and functionality.

  4. p says:

    Does anyone have advice for when you are both home but your partner is not working? He is still employed and taking a paycheck, but cannot complete his job from home. He is taking on more of the household tasks, which I appreciate. But it can anger me to come out to refill my water to find him playing video games, again.

    • CP says:

      This played out at our house today with our temporary homeschooling situation. It helped us to explain what I was feeling and why, acknowledging that emotions aren’t always rational or fair. This was tough for me because my husband does great under confined, stressful conditions and I do… less great. But your partner can’t help if they don’t know there’s a problem.

    • Kate says:

      Yup – home with my fiance who is also home but can’t work (essentially furloughed right now as a gov’t contractor). Separate spaces is definitely key for us. If I *saw* him play video games, I’d be annoyed, but his set up is in the guest room and mine is in the main living area. The tip from Abra that I’m going to steal is not asking your partner to do housework during their day – he’ll come start doing dishes and I feel like I’ve got to help but I’m also working…

    • Erin says:

      I’m in the same boat. I can work from home, my partner can not, and has to stay home as a result. Honestly, that is a shittier position to be in than I am in (not that WFH full time is some sort of pleasure cruise atm). I have something to distract me all day, and I’m earning my full paycheck (he is using leave to cover the time away from the office, which is basically like taking a pay cut, and it will eventually run out). Even though WFH has its own types of frustrations (mostly that I’m not as productive as normal), I’d take it over his situation any day.

      When I find myself getting annoyed that he says he can’t respond to me right this second bc he is playing a video game, I remind myself that I’m actually happy the video game exists because it’s giving him something to do that take his mind off the current situation. Which is shittier than my situation. He can’t go to his favorite gym to blow off steam while feeling useless and stressed. And yes, he has taken on a lot more housework than me, but that doesn’t fill an entire day.

      We talk about these things too, and it has gone well. Just understanding that we’re both on edge, but we’re on each other’s team:)

  5. espie says:

    Thanks for sharing your tips! My husband and I share a office at home. Two things that are working for us is the headphone rule: if someone is wearing headphones, don’t bother them for anyhting unless someone is actually dying.
    The other thing we do is have a meeting Monday morning to talk about important conference calls etc for the week and talk about who needs what space/resources to keep things running smoothly. For example: my 1.5hour zoom meeting with my boss, means I get the office. Having these mapped out ahead of time on a shared calendar has been useful.

  6. CP says:

    I needed this–thank you. I successfully worked remotely full time for 2 years, and now have a normal office job that has temporarily gone remote. I’m so sick of seeing work from home tips that pretend that it’s totally normal to be locked inside with your entire family while a pandemic plays out across the world.

  7. Zoe says:

    My husband is in meetings all day and doesn’t have an inside voice. He got the study and I’m in the living room with over ear, noise cancelling headphones. It’s gonna be a loooong lockdown…

    • Belle says:

      My husband also lacks an inside voice. There are days I want to beat on the wall with a broom. But that would be rude, so I just text him and turn on the white noise machine.

  8. BN says:

    Preface: this is coming from someone with two very young children and two temporarily-at-home parents trying to work full time despite this madness. My best advice after nearly 2 weeks of this is to be flexible, especially if you have kids. We have a schedule, but if the baby sleeps longer during her morning nap, then the rest of the day will need an adjustment. Or maybe it’s a day when we can’t afford an adjustment in the afternoon, so we agree to wake the baby up on time even if she’s still asleep. Alternatively, if it’s my hour to watch the kids but my boss calls, then my husband steps in. Constant communication throughout the day as things shift due to work emergencies or the whims of a child (who has no idea what is happening outside the house walls), and the ability to shift, adjust, and be flexible, has been working for us thus far.

  9. J says:

    I find the white noise machine to be helpful with letting family know that whoever has it on cannot be disturbed at this time. Since the kids equate the noise machine with sleep, they understand that they have to be quiet when they’re close to it.

    That and separate spaces. We tried working in the office together and that was a fail since he has to do video conferences and me with a ton of audio conferences. Then adding the kids basically made us that BBC interview where the interviewee’s children gatecrashed his discussion with the presenter in every single meeting.

  10. MJ says:

    My husband and I work for different legislators in the same state, and are both working from home during COVID-19. We’re blessed with a house big enough to separate our work spaces (and good weather so one of us can always take a conference call outside), but we also collaborate when we can. For example, the update conference calls from agencies, we can listen to at the same time on speaker. We break for lunch around the same time so we can check in with each other, much like we might usually do when working separately. All of your suggestions are really great!

    I recommend to folks to be sure to share the WIFI – you may not both be able to be on Zoom or other videoconferencing calls at the same time, so check your signal strength. If you have kids at home, now is the worst time for them to be on screens the whole day, if only because they’ll eat up the bandwidth you might need for file sharing and whatnot, so find ways to take turns watching/entertaining/teaching the kids. If you need quiet to work but your partner needs noise, now’s the time to break out the headphones, especially if you have to share space.

    Hang in there everyone!

  11. caitlin says:

    My partner and I are sharing a ~900 square feet loft that doesn’t… really have walls. Headphones have been key, as has someone hanging out in the lofted space (“bedroom”) and the other staying downstairs.

  12. […] post to read – not one from AMA, but one written by Abra Belke of Capitol Hill Style about how to coexist with a spouse in a work-from-home environment. And while I’m still periodically frustrated […]

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