Working Remotely with your Partner: How to Not Breakup (Or Get Fired)
Filed under “Things I Do Not Recommend,” my partner, Patrick, and I changed jobs on the same day. We accepted remote job offers within hours of each other, ending one of the most stress-filled weeks of our 8-year marriage.
But every time we shared the news, we were met with “I could never work with my partner.” or “Good luck with that.” While I’m somewhat offended by those comments, let’s consider the subtext. Can you work at home, with your partner, and still want to remain a couple? And how can you still be an effective member of your team?
Your Mileage May Vary
First, a disclaimer. I work on a website. I’m not a marriage counselor or a couples therapist. Real professionals exist to help you with the relationship side of things. If you need them, use them! They’re super smart and pretty helpful.
When you start this adventure, your first order of business should be having a candid conversation about each other’s needs for personal space, and focus. You’ll also need to discuss your employer’s expectations for the work day, your availability after hours, and your office environment (i.e., are you expected to have a quiet place to take client calls). Speak as frankly as you can, because this is the time to set out your ideal work day.
What works for us
We transitioned from jobs that were very regimented- commute, clock in at 9, lunch at noon, wrap up around 5, commute. When we began working from home, the thought of ditching the schedule was tantalizing.
My team is fully distributed, Pat has slightly less flexibility. His team is based in Dayton, Ohio, so he’s got to synch up with the office.
So to respect his co-workers, and to structure the day, we act like we’re still in an office. We go to our workspaces around 9 AM, resurface at noon for lunch and to walk the dog, then go back to work until 5-ish. We’ve found that the afternoon dog walk has been invaluable. The dog forces us to get away from our desks and gives us a chance to bounce ideas off of each other.
The most critical part of this is what happens after 5 PM. At 5, barring anything being actively on fire, we both leave our work laptops plugged in on our desks, and walk away. Establishing a barrier between work and life is crucial when you work from home because failing to do so will lead you quickly to burnout, frustration, and exhaustion, which are bad enough as an individual, but partners both burning out at the same time will greatly diminish your ability to help each other cope.
I need some space
Physical space is critical to being an effective work from home duo. I advocate each person having a workspace in a different location whenever practical. Pat and I are fortunate that our home enables us to work in different parts of the house. We can listen to our music at an obnoxious volume. Team calls can remain private. I can dance at my standing desk in my running tights and fluffy slippers (Remote work has its upsides, eh?). My messy organizational system remains my problem.
This separation also makes it possible for us to feel “at work.” We joke about “congestion on the morning commute” (meaning the dog is sleeping on the stairs), but even that small physical act of going to a space devoted to work helps to cue the brain for work. Conversely, leaving at the end of the day marks a transition to home life.
That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t enter/visit each other’s spaces during the day. As the extrovert in our relationship, I need to talk to a human being during the day. Pat is also a social human but requires more time to focus and find a groove in his work. To respect his work style, I had to learn some of his signals.
If the door is closed, he’s on an important call, likely with clients. That’s a clear do not disturb sign, unless the house is literally on fire.
If the door is open and he’s wearing his big black headphones, that means he’s just listening to music and can be briefly interrupted.
If the door is open and he’s wearing white iPhone headphones, that means he’s on a call, but it’s a standup or company call. Still not to be disturbed, but if I cross the hallway, I can wave to his coworkers.
No headphones? Fair game.
Having a discussion about what type of things help you focus, and what the signals will be when focus time is needed, and when you can and can’t be disturbed is valuable. Most of the time, it’s headphones, but you can also revert to the good old dry-erase board on the door, or maybe a “Do not disturb” tag borrowed from a hotel?
Related to discussing Do Not Disturb signals, might I suggest having an office Slack? Yes, I send Slack messages to the person who works two floors up. Yes, we are the only two people on the team.
Why should you Slack with your significant other? Well, for both of us, Slack is already a tool we use for our work lives. It’s ingrained in our minds as “place where information lives” and is relatively unobtrusive. If something comes up and I need to run out while he’s on a call, I just send a Slack message, knowing he has his notifications set as he wishes.
It also is a way to have searchable documentation of your conversations. “Wait, did they say they had a call today at 1? Let me search our Slack channel.”
While spending a lot of together time with your partner and your dog is undeniably excellent, spending 80+ hours a week with anyone is a lot. While Pat and I share many interests, a key to our 16 years of bliss has been having our hobbies and respecting the time needed to enjoy them.
I recently bought a classic car, and the restoration process is a dirty, loud, infuriating labor of love that only I enjoy. My spouse has the distinction of being a former Nintendo Master, and recently resurrected his classic SNES system. Spending significant chunks of time doing these separate activities, and time alone doing things like reading, shopping, or going for coffee outside of the house, is good for the soul.
And the mind.
And your relationship.
Divide the labor
There’s no getting around it. Working from home drastically increases the amount of mess in your home. Dishes, paper, chargers, cords, mail, etc. I cannot stress this enough: have a grown up discussion about chores. When you work and live together, you have less space to go and be angry, and a disagreement over chores can be distracting and disruptive to your workflow. If it’s necessary, make a chore chart, or have an agreed upon level of disorder. Do whatever you need to do to find a balanced, equal, shared agreement around cleaning and cleanliness. Might I suggest Slack’s /remind command for this? Or a shared Google calendar?
When it’s not working out
You may decide this arrangement is hell, personally or professionally. But to avoid getting to that point, set up check-ins to see how it’s going for each of you. Think of it as your standup meeting. It’s a time to pipe up about what you need to work more effectively, and harmoniously with your significant other.
If you share an apartment or your home lacks sufficient soundproofing for you to ignore your partner’s glorious rendition of “The Rhythm of the Night,” it’s time to consider a membership in a coworking space.
Others have adopted work sheds – fully wired, sometimes very upscale, prefabricated sheds plopped down in their back gardens – as a way of putting a barrier, albeit small, between home and work. While this is resource intensive, it might be worth it if you desire solitude while still being able to be close to home, and may up your property value.
Can it be done?
Well, eight months into this arrangement and we’re still married, and, at last check, still employed. So our answer is yes, but with the recognition that it can’t happen without work, compromise, and communication. Being open about your needs for space, quiet, and focus will set you up for an efficient workplace and a harmonious home.
Ready for your next adventure? Find a new job on Authentic Jobs.