WFH Couples- how to maintain sanity?

I made a conscious choice to work from home when I started Nucleus Insights. I knew I would be traveling often on work and be away from home, so the days that I am in town, I wanted to be home. The start was bumpy. I had to figure out the boundaries with my family. Over the years we have found a rhythm. However, on days when my husband also chose to work from home, the balance would be upset. We both would need a quiet space for calls, which is limited in a small Mumbai apartment. The dining table became the default office space for one of us, which meant my parents couldn’t use the TV in the living space. The bedroom if used took away the one space our son has post school to do his work. My productivity suffered the most on such days.

I realised that in the coming weeks many couples will have to work from home and deal with children being home due to school closure. While organisations help with the right technology infrastructure, the onus of making ‘work from home’ work, depends on the individuals.

The home as a space is a different dynamic from office. Be it the physical space or the mental models that exist within those walls. There are many subtle and unspoken rules that come to play based on who is the primary earner vs secondary earner, who is the primary home maker vs secondary home maker, whose career matters most etc. Each of these play a role in deciding whose work takes priority, who gets to work in the quietest space, who can stay behind closed doors all day, who has to take care of the kids, who manages all the chores and of course  gets to answer the door bell. The fine balance that is achieved when both go to respective workplace, is upset when both need to operate from one space as equals.

This change can be demanding. Having to stay fully productive and manage the dynamics of working from home are not easy. It takes effort to maintain harmony in a household. I had learned a few things over the years. I also decided to ask my friends if they had any tips that worked for them. Some of them have been working from home for a few years along with their spouse, a few who have been forced to do so more recently. I gathered some tips, which I feel will be useful for all of us.

  1. Share your schedules: The first step is to draw up a schedule of the calls each one has and share it with each other. See if you can avoid overlaps and decide who will do it from which space. If there is only one quiet corner, then one could “reserve” the space like we book meeting rooms in the office. Have a schedule stuck on the door of the room with time slots and bookings.
  2. Communicate ground rules: If you have parents/in-laws, siblings, house-helps in the house, communicate some ground rules to all. Just because you are home, doesn’t mean you will be available for chores, entertain guests, manage the doorbell etc. If you are working from home productively, it requires others to change some of their patterns. Discuss this openly and lay out some dos and don’ts. Do not assume they know what adjustments need to be made. Let them know you are not on a holiday.
  3. Time shift between the two: This is like working in shifts. One does the morning and the other the afternoon shift or whatever is workable. Helps to have minimal overlaps between the two, and better coverage over the children. Negotiate this with your employer and your work team, if required.
  4. Negotiate different working days: If one of you can work from Mon-Fri and the other can do from say Wed-Sun, thus avoiding any overlap for 2 days. And between the two, children get 4 full days attention. Sometimes it may be as simple as negotiating a deadline that allows for you to work in a more focused way as the partner is taking care of chores/children.
  5. Stick to the household schedule as if you were still going to an outside office: Ensure that all the necessary chores like cooking, cleaning etc are on the same old schedule, do not change them just because you are home and kids are home. Remember this is not a vacation. Otherwise, the household tasks will pile up leaving one overwhelmed.
  6. Avoid interfering in each other’s work: Just because you can now see how your spouse does his ppt, or hear him say something over a call, or you can see how she writes the email, do not jump in to show your “expertise”. This never goes down too well. Also sitting together and working from the same room, while sounds romantic, may not be the best thing for the long term harmony.
  7. Take turns caring for the young children: If there are toddlers at home, this will be the most difficult time for parents who are used to being “weekend parents”. Being productive at work and managing toddlers are two full time jobs. One pays now, the other many years later. Sharing the responsibility between the two with specific time schedule for taking care of the child, helps manage the responsibilities.
  8. Schedule breaks: One of the risks of working from home is not having the sense of start and close that a physical movement to and from office have. Often people overwork when they are home, either to show their commitment or because they can’t refuse. In a physical office there are breaks one takes. A colleague might ask you to join for a cup of coffee or you might meet someone at the watercooler. There are also scheduled times for lunch. Maintain a schedule at home too. As a couple take scheduled breaks together. Create some small moments to enjoy the togetherness.
  9. Enlist the children in some chores: Children don’t learn only at school. They are not going to be engaged the same way they are while away at school, but they can be engaged to do small chores. If safe, let them manage the people who come to the door, they love “adulting” as a friend of mine says. Let them work in the kitchen, fold clothes, put things in the closet etc. Children are also curious to learn what you do, so engage them, show them some things you do and don’t hesitate to inform your colleague that your child is present in the room. Children, when they know they are being watched by a third person, tend to behave better.
  10. Accept that some things will not get done the same way: The new ways of working will sometimes impact your work and what you can get done at home. Do not guilt yourself for not being your perfect self. It is ok if some chores are not done at home and it is ok if you can’t be on all the calls. Know that what is important always gets done.

While this is not an exhaustive list and many things here seem like a no-brainer, it is the small things that make a big difference in keeping the balance. And above all as one of my friends said, for a couple that works from home the most important thing to remember is to have mutual respect. Each one needs to trust the other as the enabler and care for each other. This I believe can happen if there is open communication and clear expectations setting. We do that quite well with our teams at workplace, so considering the extended family as “home office” might be the best.

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