As companies adopt remote work as a response to COVID-19, more people are finding themselves not only working from home, but also adjusting to sharing their workspace with a spouse or partner. The size and intensity of the change we’re seeing can put a strain on your relationship, while anxiety and stress may be at record-setting levels in your household.
Since 2007, my wife, Sachi, and I have worked together from home. Together, we run a web-based company called Common Craft that has no employees. It’s just us, all day, every day (and night for that matter). We are together 24/7 and have been for the last 13 years. Over that time, we have developed multiple systems and practices for not only making it work, but encouraging our relationship to be stronger and more productive.
Here are some tips for making this new reality work for both of you, starting with a bit of self-reflection. It’s important to recognize the context has changed, and you may both need to adjust your expectations regarding how you’ve dealt with one another in the past. This may be a good time to take a step back and think about the potential to break the habits you’ve developed, and become more open-minded about different approaches.
Below are a handful of ideas and practices that may help you adjust to working together at home:
The 80/80 Rule
It’s possible to think that relationships are a 50/50 affair. If you each contribute 50%, you’ll have a combined 100 percent for shared projects or goals. But what if you both contributed to 80%? Think about it this way: you both have burdens in the form of responsibilities and tasks. Look for opportunities to ease one another’s burdens by going beyond what is sufficient or expected. Take the initiative to wash the dishes or make lunches as a way to contribute more than is expected.
Empathize and de-escalate
Disagreements are inevitable, especially when under stress. Current circumstances may cause your partner to be irrational or to say things they don’t mean. Discussions can escalate quickly and cause destructive rifts. The key is to recognize when a discussion is trending in this direction and intentionally steer it away from danger or put on the brakes. Here’s how it works for us: Instead of taking things personally, try to remain calm, use a normal voice, focus on the other person’s perspective and show that you are listening. Being dismissive will only feed the fire.
Your partner may have stress that’s built up and needs to be set free. Give them room to let it out without your intervention. Even if you disagree or want to stick up for yourself, consider waiting until emotions have cooled. Say things like “I hear you,” and “I know what you mean.” If they describe a situation that you could have handled better, acknowledge it clearly. Ask them how the situation could have gone differently, and show that their input matters to you. This isn’t about winning an argument—it’s about getting through a volatile situation and coming out better on the other side.
Share gratitude for small things
When living in close quarters, it’s easy to do small favors for one another. This is especially true when you’ve developed your own responsibilities. Maybe one person usually cleans the bathrooms and another usually mows the lawn. Because these responsibilities become established, it’s easy to forget to acknowledge them. Saying, “Thanks for doing that,” when your partner contributes is a simple, but meaningful, gesture.
This also works in the other direction. A great way to practice the 80/80 rule is to take on new responsibilities and take them off your partner’s plate, even temporarily. Show that you are aware of what it takes and willing to do it.
Life at home can feel like one big flow of activity with highs and lows. If you don’t take stock every once in a while, small problems or missed opportunities can disappear without attention. The same is true for your relationship; an offhand comment might cause hurt feelings, but go unmentioned. For this reason, it’s important to make time to debrief. This means sitting down and calmly, thoughtfully discussing an event or situation in the past with the goal of making improvements in the future.
Allow for personal styles
With both of you working from home, you may find that you and your partner approach work differently. Maybe you feel the need to work a normal 9-to-5 schedule while your partner is more free-wheeling. This is the beauty of working from home—you have the freedom to choose. Have a discussion about what style works best for you and come to terms with how that impacts your day-to-day lives.
Experiment a bit with your own schedule. You might even discover that you’re more productive outside of normal work hours. Take a nap at 2 pm, and work after dinner if it suits you!
You may be spending more time at home than ever before. Put real effort into making it a place that supports your productivity and feels like a place you want to work. Consider your workspace(s) and what you can do to make them more comfortable and ergonomic. You can get a lap desk for under $20 that turns a couch or recliner into a laptop workstation. Headphones or
earbuds, along with a free white noise app, can turn a chaotic house into a serene workplace.
Keeping your home clean and orderly will go a long way to making it feel good, and cleaning doesn’t have to be a once-a-week hours-long job. Take 5 or 10 minutes here and there throughout your day to tidy up. Consider getting plants or flowers on occasion. Rearrange the furniture to make your home feel fresh and new.
In working from home, you have more flexibility and freedom. Use it to go outside and get some exercise and fresh air. Sometimes a long walk, with or without your partner, is a perfect time to reflect and reconnect. There is something magical about low-intensity exercise when it comes to generating ideas. I swear by it.
No one is perfect. We all have habits and practices that feel normal but don’t reflect well on us. Maybe you slouch or tend to interrupt someone’s point in a discussion. Alternatively, there may be habits you aspire to, like stretching regularly or meditating, that we aren’t doing as much as we’d like.
As you both work from home, you have an opportunity to observe one another more. You could agree to share feedback with the goal of mutual improvement. If you see your partner slouching, tell them. Better yet, create a subtle signal, like a raised eyebrow, that can be deployed with subtlety. The key is for both of you to understand that this exercise involves criticism and feedback. With this expectation in place, constant improvement is possible.
Not all of these tips will apply to everyone. Every relationship is as different as the people who make them up. But it’s also true that every relationship has the potential to improve and adjust to new contexts.
While working from home together may not be permanent, consider it an opportunity for positive, lasting change—if you choose to accept the challenge.
Lee LeFever is the co-founder of Common Craft and author of Big Enough (May, 2020).