The Greater Seattle area is currently dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, and many companies are requiring or requesting that their employees work from home for the foreseeable future. This is new territory for many households. Can one be productive Working From Home (WFH)? Can one or two people be WFH and not drive each other crazy? Can they still do fun couples’ stuff in the evenings and on weekends? Yes, yes, and yes! We’ve got two points-of-view here, and we think they both have insights and experience to help make WFH be a positive experience for all involved.
POV 1: The Newly Working-from-Home Partner
Define your working space
Even if your WFH situation is temporary, take an hour to set up your environment as a real workspace. If it’s just the corner of a study or spare bedroom, make it your own: put up a couple pictures, have a cup with pens, and make everything in your sightline look like an office you would be happy to work in. If you don’t have a functional desk, buy one—you should be able to find something decent for under $100 (Note: There are currently over 1,500 desks listed on Craigslist.). Trying to work from a round kitchen table will feel foreign and difficult as far as forearm placement. And if you are on frequent video calls, look behind you to be sure the background doesn’t give off an America’s Most Wanted vibe.
Define and protect your working hours
The possibilities for distraction at home are endless. Most information-age jobs can look to family members a whole lot like you are just sitting around. But after even a quick distraction from a mental task, it takes the human brain about 10 minutes to restore focus. Establish your office hours and tell everyone in your household when you are available and when you are not.
Once you establish focused working hours, enjoy the flexibility. The lack of commuting time may buy you an extra hour or two per day. As you schedule your time, work in lunches with your spouse or friends, go to your kids’ games, even take a quick nap. I have found that the flexibility to segment my own time and work rhythms has made me far more productive.
Schedule outside time
Think back on the laziest, most sedentary phase of your life. You now have the opportunity to be even lazier and more sedentary. Enjoy it for a few days if you like, but don’t let yourself become the strange, old hermit that your neighbors whisper about. As you set up your schedule, work in time for a walk or a run, or time to work from the coffee shop (even if you’re not a millennial).
Dress for success
Working in sweats seems great, and it is… for a while. But looking like a slob can quickly erode your self-image and repulse your spouse. Getting dressed for work is an important ritual to define your day and remind you that your contribution is valuable.
If you really do succeed in wearing work clothes every day, congratulations! But if you are like most people, you’re going to have days where you roll out of bed straight to your desk. On those days, have a clean, professional-looking outfit close at hand if you need to jump on an impromptu video call. I keep a nice dress shirt in the closet of my home office, just for these occasions!
Most of today’s jobs are wired to a broad circle of colleagues, but WFH carries a real risk of social isolation and disconnection. You won’t have the work meetings, team lunches, and Thursday happy hours anymore. Email and text are terrific for quick tasks, but sight and sound are critical to relationships, especially when physical proximity is impossible. Get on video chats or on the phone as often as you can, and don’t forget to take the time to connect around the things you care about, whether it’s family and friends or your latest Netflix binge.
POV 2: The One Who Now Has a Newly-WFH Partner
Several years ago when my husband’s new position let him WFH daily, I thought, “Cool! We could go get lunch sometimes, he can help with carpool shifts, and it’ll be fun having him around all the time!” Hmm, not quite. As a part-time working mom and lead parent to our three teens, I was used to running the show at home from about 8am-6pm, Monday-Friday. With both parents now at home the dynamic definitely shifted; it honestly took some getting used to. We’ve got a great situation now, though, and with these tips, you will, too.
Remember that he or she is at work
Even if your partner works in their home office or in the dining room, you have to stick with the mindset that they are at work. It’s tempting to call out for help getting something in the garage or to start talking about today’s news—resist the urge. In a strange way, just kind of “forget” that they’re even there; it sounds odd but truly, you get used to it. Then when they emerge to get coffee in the kitchen or use the bathroom, you can go, “Oh hi!”, like you would if you passed your co-worker in the hallway at the office. Respecting their space and their work—and minimizing distractions—is key to a harmonious coexistence at home, whether just one or both of you are WFH.
Establish a shared calendar
Without our family calendar we would be lost. Whether you do it on a big whiteboard in the kitchen, or a shared calendar in the Cloud (as we do), having a visible schedule with everyone’s activities and whereabouts is vital to staying on top of our busy schedules. Knowing if your spouse is on a critical multi-person conference call from 3-5pm is important so you don’t blast your music or schedule the window cleaner to come during that time. Conversely, when your partner sees that you’re holding a school committee meeting at home at 10am, they may see that as a good time to work from a coffee shop or the library.
The kids should know what to expect
If you have kiddos, it’s an extra bit of challenge. Encourage them to assume the “forget” mindset mentioned above. This is probably harder to do with younger kids because it’s oh-so-tempting to sneak a peak at mom or dad WFH, and harder to understand why they just can’t come out for awhile to play. If it’s doable, try to schedule a 15-minute break with your WFH partner so they come out and hang with the kids when they’ve just gotten home from school. They can have a quick catch-up before it’s back to work. (Hey, if the peeps at the office can go for a Starbucks run at 3pm, the WFH ones can certainly do a kitchen coffee run!)
Enjoy the perks—there are many!
Yes, I have yelled and the huge spider was vanquished by my WFH spouse. Once in a blue moon he’ll tell me, “This Friday is super light, let’s go out for lunch.” Sometimes I’m making myself a sandwich at noon and he will be heating up leftovers, and we can sit for 20 minutes and eat together. He is thrilled to not have the ghastly 1-2 hour commute. We save money on gas, his work lunches and coffees—more money for date nights! He’s been able to attend 90% of the kids’ after-school activities (if they’re on the calendar early and he can schedule around it—hence, the importance of the calendar). In a pinch, he has been able to help with carpooling or taking a kid to the doctor. And of course, there are the extra perks (wink, wink).
All in all it has been a remarkably positive change to have my partner be WFH. He still goes to the office once in awhile, and is able to look forward to and enjoy those days. He’s actually doing more work since he doesn’t use up time to commute. He’s home for dinner every night, and without the commute we’ve been able to hit up a Happy Hour a couple times a month. With some adjustments and some re-working of our responsibilities and roles at home, we’ve made both of us WFH to be something we are extremely grateful for.