How to Work From Home In a Small Space With Your Partner

Gretchen Rubin
·5 mins read
Photo credit: golero - Getty Images
Photo credit: golero - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

Gretchen Rubin is the bestselling author of several books, such as Outer Order, Inner Calm and The Happiness Project, about how to be happier, healthier, and more productive, and she hosts the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. For OprahMag.com, Gretchen is weighing in on how we can all find a little bit of calm, even during a pandemic. This week, she answers a reader question.

My spouse and I are still in a very small space, and both working remotely, and it’s become increasingly difficult for us to each have our own carved out work areas…I’m constantly listening to his Zooms and vice versa. Any tips?—Samantha from Cleveland, Ohio

For months, the disruptions caused by the coronavirus seemed as if they’d be temporary, and we struggled through with makeshift solutions. Now, however, many of us are realizing that this is the new normal, and that it’s time to create solutions that can make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative, even in this strange environment.

But of course, the biggest question here is: Where do I start?

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

If you can afford it, one of the easiest steps is to invest in a few helpful tools that will be key. One useful addition is a set of comfortable headphones that you can wear during meetings. That way, even if someone’s on a Zoom call, the other person hears only one side of the conversation. (Confession: I have had zero success in persuading my own husband to wear a very comfortable set of headphones we own.)

You might buy a small desk so that you can each set up in a separate room. You might consider investing in shelves, bins, or cabinets to re-organize your possessions, to clear out space to create a new work area or “phone booth,” or just to create more elbow room. You might even use a room divider, screen, or bookshelf to create physically separate spaces or to mark the boundary of an “office.”

Next, it's important to create clear expectations around where you’ll each take Zoom calls. Some people like to wander around with a laptop; others set up in a high-traffic area, like the kitchen. By agreeing that “I’ll do my calls here, you’ll do your calls there,” you can more easily avoid each other.

You may want to also establish your own individual designated work spaces, too. Some people like to move from the sofa, to the kitchen table, to the bed, to the table by the window. At a time when it’s easy to feel stir-crazy, this flexibility can be helpful, but for two people sharing the space, this unpredictability might make it feel like there’s no place to retreat for a little quiet and privacy.

And just as you think about your surroundings, think about your schedules. In ordinary times, you and your spouse wouldn’t need to coordinate your work days—you’d both go off to the office. Now, although it’s a hassle to plan, you might save yourself a lot of difficulty by comparing calendars. That way you can try to counter-program your important Zoom meetings or calls. Be clear when you need “do not disturb” periods, to talk to co-workers or to work without interruption.

You can also rethink your work week—and work hours. Could one person take a different “weekend,” so that on one or two days of the week, only one person is working on a particular day? Could you shift your hours so that one person has a solo slot in the morning or in the evening? This adjustment can be particularly helpful if you’re also managing children.

Along the same lines, if you have flexibility, try to time activities to help you stay out of each other’s way. If you can go for a run at any time, try to leave the apartment so you don’t have to overhear your spouse’s Zoom call. If your spouse plans to make a grocery-store run, that errand could be timed around your Zoom call.

One obvious point—but one that’s easy to overlook—is that if you’re getting very annoyed by some behavior, choose a time when you’re both feeling calm and energetic, and say, “Hey, I find it makes it hard for me to concentrate on my work when you do XYZ.” Your spouse may have absolutely no idea that a certain habit is driving you up the wall, but you need to find a solution that works for both of you. (Tempting, but less effective strategies? Say nothing, and then explode; make vague sarcastic remarks; or feel free to indulge in all your own most annoying habits.)

Finally, an “attitude of gratitude” can be helpful when we’re facing frustration, anxiety, and irritation. When I’m feeling annoyed as I detour around the kitchen to stay out of my husband’s video background, I pour myself a cup of coffee and remind myself of how grateful I am that we’re both able to work from home—and that my family has stayed healthy.

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