How to WFH When You Live With a Roommate or Partner

You can and WILL get through it!

We are undoubtedly living in strange and scary times right now with the global pandemic that is COVID-19, and things are changing rapidly. So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that effective March 18, Canada will bar foreign citizens from entering the country. Ontario and Alberta announced a state of emergency, and many schools, restaurants and businesses across the country have closed.

All of these measures have been put in place to further encourage everyone to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus (or, “flattening the curve,” as they say) by practising social distancing and avoiding close contact with other people as much as possible.

Essentially, we’re all going to be staying at home for the next little while (seriously guys, STAY AT HOME), and that means those of us who share a living space with others will be spending a LOT more time with our roommates, be it friends, a romantic partner, siblings…you get the picture.

For those of us who have the luxury of working from home, this means a little recalibrating of our work days and set-ups, while keeping our partners in mind and adapting to their needs as well. Yes, it can seem daunting and stressful (I’m typing this forward-facing my partner right now who is also working on his laptop, and wondering if we really are going to be able to make it through this), but there are some strategies we can employ to get through this transition with a bit more ease. Because, honestly, we really don’t need more stress right now, amirite?

Do an audit of the tasks at hand and create a shared schedule

First thing’s first? Map out what needs to be done in your work day, and the impact those tasks will have on the people around you.

“Audit what kind of work you have, and then discuss with your living partner how you can work around each other as much as possible to be able to accommodate those times which may be disruptive or distracting to the other person,” suggests Toronto-based productivity coach Clare Kumar. For example, if you have to engage in work calls throughout the day, you’ll want to figure out how to isolate yourself from the other person (more on that later) so your conversations are private enough and not disruptive to them either.

Rachel Spencer, a Toronto-based YouTuber who works from home on the regular with her boyfriend, says she finds it helpful to know her boyfriend’s workload for the day, and vice versa.

“It helps to keep both of you on track, even if you’re not in the same industry,” she says. “Sometimes my boyfriend will have specific meetings, and I tell him I have a deadline for a video. It helps set boundaries a bit better because I know if my boyfriend has a huge deadline, I won’t be bothering him as much throughout the day.”

David Ip Yam and Lindsey Ostrosser, relationship facilitators and the co-founders of Relationship Zen, say it’s important to block out time for specific tasks, including breaks, in order to avoid conflicting schedules. For example, having one person cook while the other is on a conference call in the same space may not be the best for productivity.

If you live with a romantic partner, it’s also important to plan out what parts of the day you’ll spend together and what parts you’ll spend in separate rooms. “Working from home is particularly challenging for couples because relationships are successful when there’s a delicate balance between autonomous freedom and intimate connection,” Ip Yam says. The duo recommends building a schedule based on both parties’ preferences.

Get creative when creating space

Many of us live in small spaces, and attempting to work and co-habitate in tight quarters can be really, really challenging. Since not everyone has a home office space, this probably means some rejigging of your living quarters so you’re not working from the couch or from bed all day, which not only may halt productivity (ahem, makes it way too easy to take a nap) but can also be bad for your body.

Ideally, you’ll want to spend at least some of the day separate from your living partner (read: be in different rooms) to avoid distractions, especially if one of you is working and the other is not. But, if this isn’t possible, there are some ways to still create your own space. If you have two desks, try using a bookshelf as a divider, says Rachel Delduca, a Toronto-based certified professional organizer and owner of Living in Harmony.

“Turn the bookcase so it stands between the two spaces, then add your favourite books and plants so it will look like a design feature and not a divider meant for work separation,” she says.

If there is only one desk (or none) available, Kumar says to try to reimagine uses for the items you do have in your home—like using the kitchen table as another desk, or a kitchen counter as a standing desk.

“[This gives you] a couple of options you can switch between which will keep you feeling interested in your workplace from the physicality perspective and give you different opportunities for different places to work,” she says.

However, Kumar does stress the importance of ensuring that working from home doesn’t give you long-term health implications, especially if your work space isn’t ergonomically optimal. Try to have your elbow at 90 degrees and elevate your screen, if possible, so you’re not straining your neck. (A stack of books or magazines does the trick.)

If creating physical separation is not an option, Delduca suggests facing away from the other person to avoid distractions. And when it comes to conference calls, noise-cancelling headphones are key. “[That way], you can talk freely, [especially] if there are confidentiality issues as well,” she explains.

And if worse comes to worst, Spencer suggests using the bathroom to take calls to avoid any distractions from either party. “It may sound silly, but it’s beneficial to have that closed door,” she says.

(Just make sure your living partner doesn’t actually need to use the bathroom at said time.)

… and while you’re at it, rejig your space to make it productivity-friendly

Typically, we think of home as a place for unwinding and relaxation, not work, which can impact our productivity. Delduca says it’s important to make it a priority to create a space where everyone in the household can do their best work. That means focusing on organization and cleanliness, especially if you have a small space.

“There is no way to stay motivated or concentrated if your space is a mess,” she says. “Go through your items one by one, and determine what the item’s function is and if it deserves space in your life.”

The next step would be to make your space beautiful, whatever that means to you.

“It’s a space you must feel motivated in,” she explains. “Give it your personal flare. I try to evoke feelings of simplicity, peace and inspiration in my space.” Some ways to brighten up your space is to add fresh flowers, plants, candles, anything that sparks some joy and happiness.

Set boundaries between work-life and home-life

Ip Yam and Ostrosser stress that boundaries between work and home life are especially important for keeping a romantic relationship healthy.

“Especially in the context of shared WFH, you risk neutralizing the potential for excitement and intimacy…unless of course you find your partner’s work to be really sexy,” Ostrosser says.

They suggest scheduling both individual and together time, and putting it in a calendar to keep those boundaries clear. Some “together” activities could include playing board games, making new meals together, laughing together and doubling down on daily gratitude. “Each night we make time to tell each other what we are grateful for,” Ip Yam says. “It’s a good practice to help encourage positive conversations for yourself and your relationship.”

And finally, Ip Yam and Ostrosser say to remember that boundaries look different for everyone ranging from the material (like keeping the phone away), physical (working from a specific desk in the house), mental (reading for leisure), and emotional/spiritual. Be mindful of what’s important for you and your partner.

Be respectful of each other’s needs, sensitivities and triggers

Here’s the catch: As great as structure and boundaries are, it sometimes doesn’t work for everyone. Stephanie J. Marshall, a transformational life coach based in Toronto, says unfortunately our brains are better at setting intentions than actually following through, and we need to recognize and be prepared for that.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all for how to work at home,” she explains. “Some people can create and follow through with a rigid schedule, others will fare better if they begin with a list. Some people can work in pyjamas, others can’t. People have different drivers.”

If your living partner’s WFH style varies greatly from yours, it’s important to be mindful of what works for them, too, and to try to practice non-judgment to avoid any arguments. Sure, if your partner is watching Netflix on the couch while you’re trying to work, that may seem annoying, but perhaps that is what they need in the moment (especially during these stressful times).

Clear communication is key here. “When there is a change in the relationship, it’s important to talk about what this could mean for your relationship,” Ostrosser says. A few conversation prompts she and Ip Yam suggest include respectfully negotiating expectations for your living partner as soon as possible to avoid miscommunication, talking about how each of you personally react to change, and talking about how each of you can challenge and support each other through the change.

Kumar says the general rule of thumb is to be sensitive to the most sensitive person in the household. “If you’ve got someone who’s really bothered by clutter and you don’t give a hoot, try to make an effort to tidy your space up…even if that means using boxes to gather things rather than have everything spill over,” she explains. “A lot of mess could be triggering that person’s nervous system, giving them chronic stress, and we’re trying to avoid being stressed out in a situation like this.”

“It is important to recognize that the transition to working from home is difficult not because people are lazy or undisciplined, but because it requires different habits,” says Marshall. “You need to approach [WFH] with curiosity. Be flexible with your systems as you learn what works for you and your living partner, but be ruthlessly honest too. At the end of every day, ask yourself and each other what worked, what didn’t and what you can (and will) do differently.”

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