Relationships

How to WFH With Your Partner Without Killing Each Other

A desk space covered in beautiful pink flowers with a chic framed image of Amsterdam.
No reason your new shared home office can’t be this serene. Alisa Anton on Unsplash

My wife and I have always felt fortunate to have jobs that sometimes allow us to work from home. Usually we’d go into our respective offices, but if we needed to let in a plumber or work from afar while visiting family, we could get our jobs done without taking vacation days. On rare occasions, like snowy days, when we’d both work from home, our weekday proximity was a welcome novelty. We could touch elbows on the couch while we typed, bring each other snacks, and chat in real time about the news or funny tweets we saw. It would still seem like a workday, but it felt a lot cuter.

These days, while employees in many industries are struggling through coronavirus-related shift cuts and layoffs, we consider ourselves even luckier to be employed in industries that don’t require in-person attendance. But the shine of working from home together, which we’ve been doing for just about a week, has already begun to wear off. In our tiny apartment, our workspace options are limited. Aside from the bedroom (which has no seating) or bathroom (who’s gonna type on the toilet?), our only real option is a combination living/dining/kitchen area. That shared space has nowhere to go for a moment of privacy or uninterrupted concentration. One person might be giving a client presentation on Zoom while the other clangs around the kitchen reheating soup. One person’s go-to electro-jazz playlist makes the other anxious. One person is used to a completely silent open-plan workplace; the other loves getting up to chat. And who knew one person had the habit of absent-mindedly sighing, over and over again, while composing work emails?

None of these things bothered us when we only worked from home together a few times a year. But amid all the other disruptions to our daily lives and with the looming prospect of working from home together for the next several months, I’ve started to worry about how being forced to turn our home into an ill-equipped coworking space might affect our work products—and, more importantly, our relationship.

Eager to establish a sustainable working relationship/marriage with my deskmate/wife, I solicited advice from a few dozen people: some who’ve been working at home with their partners for years and some, like me, who are quickly learning what works and what doesn’t after being forced to cowork for the first time. Here’s what they said.

Make Optimal Use of Your Space

If you’ve been blessed with a home containing multiple rooms with chairs and tables, carve out a bit of personal workspace for each person, then designate another spot—like a kitchen table or couch—as a common area where you can both work when you want company. If working in separate rooms isn’t an option, give each person a primary working area as a home base, preferably on opposite ends of your space, and then switch up as needed. A visual barrier, like a bookshelf repurposed as a divider, might help you stay focused and discourage you from making googly eyes at your beloved all day.

Get Good Headphones

Almost everyone recommended these, both for background music and to accommodate differing appetites for consuming coronavirus news throughout the day. Here’s a nice budget pair.

Consider Getting a Hotspot if Your Wi-Fi Sucks

Nothing fosters impotent rage like slow Wi-Fi. Is your internet plan too feeble for two full-time workers? Maybe someone’s employer will spring for a hotspot.

Be Honest About Your Work Styles

Do you welcome interruptions or prefer to be left alone? What breaks your concentration, and what constitutes a break-worthy emergency or pleasant opportunity to chat? Set a few boundaries and ground rules. Tell your partner when you’d like a few hours of total solitude, or ask them to wait until you’ve stopped typing before tapping you on the shoulder for a kiss. One person told me he and his wife instant message each other throughout the day even when they’re sitting next to each other—that way, the other person can respond whenever they’re ready if they’re doing something that demands their full attention. It’s natural to want a few breaks for socializing throughout the day, but it’s unlikely that your working rhythm will always sync up with your partner’s. Find the balance of workday communication that feels right for you.

Share Your Work Schedules

As I told my wife: I wouldn’t have made my soup at 1:30 p.m. if I’d known she’d be unmuted on an important client call at 1:30 p.m.! Most at-home workers have even more phone and video calls on their schedules now than they did before the coronavirus made in-person meetings inadvisable or illegal. Start a shared calendar or check in every morning to let your partner know when’s a bad time to enter the living room in a towel and when you’ll need them to stop yelling across the room about the dog’s diarrhea. Even better, take your work calls outside.

Act Like You’re Both Actually at Work

According to several people who gave me advice, the secret to amicably coworking from home is to say goodbye in the morning, retreat to separate workspaces, then reconvene in the evening as if you’d both been to an office. One benefit of this setup: As non-coronavirus conversation topics start to run low, you can still have the classic “How was your day?” exchange over dinner.

Or Don’t

Other people told me they relish the opportunity to bounce ideas off their partners or get second reads on emails and drafts throughout the day. It can be refreshing to break up the day with moments of connection. Listen to a podcast together, make a semi-complex lunch, or go on a 15-minute walk around your neighborhood. On that note …

Have Sex During the Workday

Why not?

But Also, Get Some Alone Time

Take a solo stroll, or even a solo shower. Spending 24 hours of every day in a single room with another person, even if they’re your favorite person, is a lot. Don’t be afraid to ask for a moment to yourself, and don’t take it personally if your partner needs some privacy. We all do.

Draw a Line Between Work Hours and After-Work Hours

This is good practice for everyone working from home, but it’s especially important in a relationship that currently consists of working shoulder to shoulder every day before eating and hanging out together every night. Once the work laptops close, keep them that way if you can, to mark a physical and mental transition into relaxed home time. If your work hours are long or unpredictable, try to take formal breaks to share a meal or conversation without checking email or talking about work. Otherwise, all of your home life might start to feel like your work life.

Be Extra Kind

Everyday stresses might feel magnified when you’re worried about friends and family, isolated from your community, and uncertain about the future. Little kindnesses, like brewing an extra cup of tea or saying “thank you” more often, can help keep tension levels low.

Embrace the Window Into Your Partner’s World

Maybe you think your spouse’s conference call swagger is sexy. Or maybe you hate that you now know your husband calls all his co-workers “dude.” Either way, unless you work with your partner, this might be your first look at the ins and outs of one of the few parts of their life that doesn’t involve you. Take it as an opportunity to learn.

Some of these behaviors seem obvious, but they may not come easily; bringing a bit of workplacelike structure into the home can feel unnatural. It still might help keep you and your partner sane as you adjust to a new routine. Once you get acclimated to your new normal, you’ll both be sighing with relief. And thanks to your new headphones, you won’t even hear each other.

Listen to The Waves, Slate’s podcast about gender and feminism, for more on women and quarantine.