Ground Rules for When You Live With Someone Who Works from Home
When my husband, Tim, quit his job to develop his own game almost two years ago, I knew there would be challenges. For example, he was funding its development entirely with his own savings, with no guarantee of any kind of return—and I became the sole breadwinner in a city famous for its unaffordability. To save money, he decided to work from our small one-bedroom apartment, where his desk and our living room share the same space.
I definitely anticipated stress over money, long hours, and uncertainty, but I looked forward to the perks and flexibility of having someone at home during the day. But in reality? It was him working from home that caused much of the stress we experienced that first year.
I work in an office and keep pretty regular hours; while I stay late sometimes, I endeavor to not work after I get home. Tim used to be this way, too. Back when he was a salaried employee at a game design studio, evenings and weekends were time for friends, relaxation, and outside interests. When he started working for himself, all of that changed. Work was now home, and home was work. Not to mention, sharing our small space became a whole lot more complicated.
Over time, we've managed it better, but looking back, here are three things I learned that helped us navigate the transition.
1. Agree on a quitting time.
When I get home at the end of the day, work is over. I'm ready to talk about my day, spend time on personal projects, or watch a movie. But when your home is your (or your spouse's) workspace, this divide becomes much harder to observe.
In the beginning, I'd come home and start chatting right away—I was, as usual, ready to talk about the details of the day, and I'd be hurt when he wasn't. I'd assumed his day ended when I got home, when in fact this often wasn't the case. To add to the issue, Tim works in front of a computer, and it was hard to tell when he was done for the day or simply taking a break in between tasks.
Eventually, we agreed that Tim would unofficially end his day around 7PM. This way, I wouldn't have to repeatedly check in about when and whether he's done, and he has an externally imposed deadline that actually helps with productivity. We don't always observe the deadline strictly, but having an understood quitting time helps us both manage our expectations.
2. Respect the space.
Most people I know don't live in apartments large enough to accommodate dedicated office space, and even the setup of the most successfully self-employed often involves working from the kitchen table or from bed.
This is hard enough if you live alone. But when you live with someone else, music choices, workspace tidiness, and other elements of business life that don't normally crossover into home all become part of your shared day-to-day.
As we learned, in order for this to work, both people need to respect that the space is serving two functions at once. And that's where flexibility, understanding, and creative solutions come in. For example, during the day when I'm out, Tim gets to listen to whatever music he chooses. When I come home, I'll often ask him to wear headphones because I prefer quiet. This has made all the difference to both of us in getting what we need out of the space.
3. Don't take it personally.
When one person works from home, it's pretty much guaranteed that he or she will sometimes be distracted, preoccupied, and otherwise not totally present. For the same reasons, it's sometimes hard to respect work boundaries at home the same way you would at the office.
This is the simplest advice, but it's often the hardest to follow: Don't take each other's behavior too personally, especially if it's happening during your agreed-upon working hours. When I talk to Tim while he's still working and feel myself getting frustrated if I don't have his full attention, I attempt to think of it the same way I would if I approached a colleague who was busy with something else. He or she might say something like, "this isn't a great time to talk, can it wait until I'm done?"—and I would totally understand. When I'm able to think of Tim as a colleague who works from my living room, and when he's able to pause and explain that he's still working, we avoid hurt and annoyance.
No matter how many square feet you have, there will always be challenges that come with one person working from home, and constant negotiation around whether and when you are operating in the personal or the professional sphere. But talking it out, being flexible with each other's preferences, and respecting work styles has all helped us make a challenging situation manageable.