Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Traveling for work can be stressful—the bad airport food, the jet lag, the unfamiliar bed. Now imagine that at the end of a long day, you head back to your hotel for some downtime … but your co-worker is sharing the hotel room with you.
Companies that send employees on business trips seem to fall into two categories: those that would never think to ask employees to share hotel rooms and those that don’t think it’s a big deal.
If you’re in an industry where people never share hotel rooms, the idea of sharing sleeping space with a co-worker might sound preposterous. But it’s a common practice in some fields (nonprofits and academia, to name two).
And it can be just as fraught as you’d imagine, in large part because sharing a room with a co-worker can be weirdly intimate: You don’t normally see co-workers in their pajamas, or hear them snoring, or become familiar with their sleep habits.
Work travel is also typically draining, and most people want rest and privacy at the end of the day. Here’s what one person wrote to me:
I need my downtime, and that means being alone. I don’t want to have to be “on” or gracious to a coworker (or, heaven forbid, my boss). I want to sit on my hotel bed in my underwear, eating popcorn and knitting. I don’t want to have to listen to someone’s blaring TV show, or bathroom noises, or anything. After a day of working or attending an event (or planning one! even worse!), I need some serious time and space to decompress.
Or, uh, there’s this:
The last time I shared a room was traveling to a trade show in Chicago. Shared a room with my boss and he came out of the shower and stood naked in the room talking to me for about 10 minutes. Very weird, and the last time I shared a room with anyone but my wife. I would refuse to travel or would pay for my own room first. If you’re asking me to travel, I’m probably working or “on” for 12 or more hours that day. I’m having my own space for the couple hours before I go to sleep.
Plus, some people have medical conditions that they’d prefer not to disclose or be forced to manage in front of colleagues—think, for example, of someone with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease who needs a lot of time in the bathroom or may have an urgent need to go, which could be a problem if their colleague/roommate is in the shower.
And some people have sleep habits that are incompatible with sharing a room, especially with someone they’re not in an intimate relationship with:
My employer … is requiring that employees share a room for an upcoming conference. I already tried to push back on this by bringing it up with my manager, but without success (he was sympathetic but unable to change the plans, which were made for budgetary reasons). … The problem is this: I snore. Occasionally I don’t snore, sometimes I snore not so badly, but sometimes it’s pretty bad. … If I was my coworker, I’d be really upset to have my sleep disturbed nightly, especially during something as already-stressful as a work trip, but I can’t do anything about that short of pay for my own room on my own dime, which I’m not willing to do.
Here’s another example:
I just came back from a work trip where I had to share a room with a coworker. She did not snore, but she did let me know that she needed a white noise machine in order to sleep. I thought it would be no problem since we use one for our daughter and I hear it through our baby monitor at home. Well, apparently she needs her white noise machine SUPER LOUD because I could not sleep all night. I mentioned it to her the next morning and that night she lowered the volume on her machine, but then told me the following day that she had not slept well while I was fine.
On top of the time change we were dealing with, the sleep issues made for 2 very tired employees manning a trade show booth for three days.
If that sounds bad, know it can get even worse:
I work for a nonprofit. Whenever there is travel, coworkers double up two to a room. The first time I shared a room with a coworker, she first talked in her sleep and then bolted upright in the middle of the night screaming, crying, and thrashing. She was shouting about things like blood and murder. It scared me so much I had to turn the lights on and shake her to find out if she was alright. She nearly hit me when I tried to wake her up and I honestly thought she was having an episode or breakdown.
My coworker told me she gets night terror episodes but it’s not a big deal. She asked me not to wake her if it happened again because I could end up getting hurt accidentally and her episodes would end naturally on their own. She said she doesn’t even remember them when she wakes up. Even if she doesn’t, I certainly did. It was only a single night trip but I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night because she had scared me.
People who have never encountered the expectation to share rooms tend to be horrified by it and often argue that a company that can’t afford private rooms for employees is a company that can’t afford to send people on business travel. (I tend to think this, personally.) But the reality is sharing rooms is within industry norms in a whole host of fields.
Some people get around this by booking themselves into a single room and paying for the difference in cost—but having people pay out of their own pockets for business travel isn’t a fair solution. Ideally, more people would push back by pointing out that work travel is draining and it’s important to be well-rested in order to be effective at whatever work they’re there to do— and by emphasizing the medical privacy angle, which might be more likely to resonate with employers. Enlisting other co-workers to push back with you can amplify the message and make it harder to ignore. And if nothing else, if you’re in a field that shares rooms, it’s worth getting your employer’s agreement that if you ever can’t sleep comfortably because of a roommate’s habits, the company will cover your costs to book yourself another room.
And, regardless, it’s always worth being grateful you’re not this person:
Some coworkers and I recently went on overnight travel, and the plan was to have us split two hotel rooms. … However, there were some unexpected changes that ultimately resulted in three people sharing one room with two beds. Those last two points I did not realize until the moment we walked into the room. My stomach dropped when I saw the beds. …
I hope it doesn’t require much explanation to convey how very, very upset I was to have to share what amounted to every last inch of personal space. It’s bad enough to lose any potential downtime during these trips because I am sharing a room with a coworker who usually is more interested in continuing work conversations late into the night, or who snores, or who talks in their sleep, or who gets up an hour before I need to, or who simply by virtue of their presence means I won’t be able to take my brain out of work mode after a 12- or 14-hour day. But to share a bed?! There is a very, very short list of people who I want to share a bed with, and no matter how much I will ever like the people I work with, they will never, ever be on that list.