Working from home as a part of your “stop the spread of COVID-19” plan is a good thing. Having some company in the form of a roommate or romantic partner during a moment as wildly uncertain as our current one? Also good! That said, there’s a significant difference between working from home with a housemate on occasion, and working from home with another person for several days, or even weeks.
Even if you adore the person (or people) you live with, being together in a smallish space 24/7 without a lot of options for going out in public or socializing with others—during a time of increasing anxiety about a pandemic and a primary election, no less—can quickly become Too Much. After just a few days of widespread WFH, my group chats are already filling up with stories of roommates who insist on working in the living room in their open robes (c’mon, guys) and significant others who are just very… talkative. If you’re still figuring out how to deal with social distancing and your workload while living with other people who are also working remotely, here are some tips.
Treat your roommates like co-workers.
Mentally reframing your relationship to the person you're both working and living near can help you both with being respectful of each others' space and need to focus.
Put on headphones if you want to play music, try to be quiet when you’re preparing food, and keep your voice down when taking calls. You probably wouldn’t walk through your open workspace shouting into your Bluetooth headset at top volume, or sprawl out across three chairs in a conference room, laughing loudly at dumb memes and insisting your coworkers stop what they're doing to laugh with you. Don’t do this to your housemates, either!!
Don’t hog the best work zones in the home. Offer to let them spread out at the kitchen table or take over the couch after lunch if you’ve been parked there for a while.
Allow the people you live with to treat you like a co-worker.
Don’t take it personally if they seem distracted (they probably are—by work!) and respect their “I’m too busy to talk right now; can we talk about this later?”
Make coffee in the morning as a show of goodwill.
It’s just nice. We all desperately need nice moments right now.
Come to an agreement about keeping your living (and, now, working) space not-slovenly.
It’s kind of shocking how quickly a fairly tidy apartment can turn into a museum of every item of clothing you own. If you’re trying to avoid feeling like a garbage slug while working remotely, it’s worth talking with your housemate(s) about what an amended chore routine or expectations for the next few weeks might look like. If the time you're spending at home is changing to accommodate new needs, so too will your mutual needs in terms of cleaning your living space.
You could say something like, “I know I tend to be bad about staying on top of some chores when I’m working from home, but I’m going to make a real effort going forward, especially since it's not really a choice right now. Can we agree to [set aside a little time for chores each evening/take care of dishes right away/try not to leave hoodies strewn across every available surface] while we’re both working from home full-time?” Since you live together, you have likely worked on similar questions before, and can work this out.
Share your calendar for the day (or week).
When you’re working from home with another person, a last-minute realization that you both have meetings scheduled for the same time can be a real pain in the ass. Plus, if one of you needs to be up and working at 7 a.m.—or plans to call it a day and start drinking beers at 3 p.m.—the other person would probably appreciate a heads up. Skipping this step and going about your business as usual is likely to lead to the kind of simmering frustration that absolutely no one needs right now.
Simply screenshotting your calendars and texting them to each other every morning is an easy way to avoid overbooking the “conference room” (your kitchen table). Knowing that they—or you—have an afternoon packed with calls might help put an end to any urges to barge in for spontaneous chats.
Embrace noise-canceling headphones… or just wear earplugs.
Maybe you both need to listen to music while you work and can’t agree on a playlist. Perhaps one of you is a shockingly loud typer. No matter what flavor of “can you please turn that down?” you’re working with, some kind of sound-muffling barrier is crucial for getting shit done (and not being at each other’s throats). Though actual noise-canceling headphones will likely be the most brain-saving, an inexpensive option is absolutely better than nothing.
I’m not saying a set of $2 drugstore earplugs will save your relationship… but I’m not not saying that either.
Let them know when (roughly) you plan on using the kitchen and shower.
If you’re not commuting to work and/or your hours are slightly shifting, it’s reasonable that your routine would also change… and that you might suddenly find yourself battling for bathroom space. Just let your roommate(s) know what your plans are for the day or give them a little notice 30–60 minutes before you intend to take over either room.
Don’t invite others to WFH at your place without talking to your housemate(s).
Setting aside reasonable concerns about other people bringing coronavirus into your space… if you’re in a situation with several people trying to work from home, it’s probably not a great idea to add friends or partners to the mix. If your buddy or your significant other is desperate to get out of their place or you think it would be fun to have them come hang out at yours, just run it by whoever you live with first. And if they say they aren’t cool with it, respect that and move on.
Make use of GChat or iMessage.
Sure, you can talk face-to-face—and doing so regularly is a good way to feel a little more human and stave off loneliness—but opting for DMs during working hours, when you’re not sure what the other person is focusing on, is less of a disturbance.
Sending messages that people can check at their own pace, based on their own concentration, reinforces the idea that, during certain hours? This home? Is actually a workplace. When you do send a message, say, “Got a sec for a not work-related thing?” or, “Hey, want to take a coffee break?” or, “If you’re free in a sec, I want to tell you about [thing].”
Plan to socialize a little bit.
If your roommate(s) or your partner are really up in your shit, they probably just want some attention. You, as a fellow isolated person, can likely relate to this right now! The move here is to plan for time together—ask in advance if they want to eat lunch with you or watch TV and cook together in the evening. They are likely just bored or lonely—which is understandable!—and will feel better having something fun on the horizon.
Build in some alone time.
Be proactive about solitude—work from a different room for a few hours, soak in the tub and listen to a podcast for 30 minutes at lunchtime (after you warn others you'll be in there!!), or sit on your fire escape and phone chat with a buddy at the end of the day.
Small, regular doses of alone time will help keep frustration and cabin fever at bay—and will keep you from getting so annoyed by your housemate(s) that you run to the nearest large gathering of people just to feel something. What may help more, if you go about it right? Intentional, non-haphazard time spent with the people around you—who, very much like you, are just trying to live, get shit done, and be respectful.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.