For millions of Americans, learning to work from home for the first time also means learning how to work with a new office mate: their significant other. For even the closest of couples, being introduced to a partner’s professional persona and sharing close quarters for an extended period of time requires an adjustment.
CNBC Make It spoke with three couples about what working from home with their partner has taught them about themselves, each other and keeping their sanity (and relationship) intact.
Kelsey Gardner, 27, just moved from Baltimore to Boston to live with her boyfriend of two years, Kevin Cavanaugh, 27. The two had spent weeks preparing for the move when the pandemic upended their original (and much more gradual) transition plan.
“My stuff just got here this weekend, and I moved in about a week ago,” she tells CNBC Make It. “The place is still filled with U-haul boxes.”
The unusual circumstances have required that she and Kevin figure out how to share their space together very quickly. While Kelsey originally moved to Boston with a job offer as a software developer, the offer was unexpectedly rescinded due to company restructuring.
“I’m currently looking for work, which is its own struggle,” Kelsey says. She initially expected she’d have the one-bedroom to herself for a few weeks until she started her new job. Now, “because my boyfriend is still working, I basically have to be a responsible adult and get dressed and showered, lest I get caught in background of Zoom meeting,” she jokes.
Working quietly around Kevin’s meeting schedule has been a challenge, as he often hops on video calls with colleagues for ad hoc check-ins throughout the day. Kelsey also needs quiet blocks for job interviews over the phone, which she usually takes from the bedroom. The two have learned to share their meeting schedules with as much notice as possible. Headphones come in handy, as does having a separate room to spread out.
“I have no idea how we’d handle this if we just had a studio apartment,” Kelsey says.
One welcome guest to Kevin’s work meetings, however, is Kelsey’s dog Bibi. “She’s a big hit in the Zoom meetings when she decides to show up,” Kelsey says.
Moving in together during a global pandemic has fast-tracked their relationship in terms of communication, setting boundaries and sharing the small space at all times. But Kelsey is optimistic about the ways they’re working through it together.
“I definitely feel like it’s galvanized [our relationship] a bit,” Kelsey says of the pandemic’s impact. “The biggest thing about moving in was trying to figure out how we’d fit everything into a one-bedroom apartment. Even if I haven’t literally figured out how to make everything fit, we’ve had to figure out how to split our space and time. I feel like this is a lot more practice than we expected.”
Kelsey has several job interviews lined up, which she hopes will soon allow her to officially work from home alongside Kevin. Bibi, for her part, has been enjoying having everyone at home with her.
“She just wants to curl up in someone’s lap, and now she has more laps to choose from,” Kelsey says. “She’s just having the time of her life.”
Space constraints are a challenge for Chris Halsted, 27, and his wife, Chiara, 27. The two have spent the last three weeks sitting side-by-side on the sofa in their 500-square-foot apartment in Washington, D.C. Adding to the mix are two dogs, including a 16-week-old puppy.
Chris is used to working remotely; he spends his time as a PhD student at the University of Virginia writing his dissertation from home, coffee shops and libraries. The transition to working from home exclusively has been a challenge, but he’s welcomed the idea of sharing the space with Chiara, a lawyer who’s learning to work remotely for the first time.
They rotate to the kitchen table throughout the day and coordinate when Chiara will have phone meetings.
“I’ve learned more about her relationship with her coworkers,” Chris says. “She’ll tell me, ‘Oh that’s so-and-so, a good friend of mine.’ It’s good to see into your partner’s personal relationships in that way.”
Communication has been crucial in making the new living and working arrangement go smoothly. That includes talking about what’s not working and finding a solution together.
“You’re going to annoy each other more than normal,” he says, “so talk about it and find a way to address it.”
While the two initially embraced their newfound time together, they quickly realized that actually spending every moment doing the same activity was unrealistic and created tension.
For example, Chiara sticks to a regular workout schedule, while Chris doesn’t. This “led to some friction since we both [felt] if one of us is working out, both of us should be,” Chris says. “The solution we’ve found is just remembering that it’s totally OK if, say, I’m folding laundry while she works out.”
To that end, Chris and Chiara make sure to have enough time to themselves and to socialize with their own friends virtually.
They’ve also found ways to celebrate special occasions together. They spent a recent evening commemorating their one-year wedding anniversary over dinner, a bottle of wine and videos of their ceremony, reception and rehearsal dinner toasts.
“It was a lovely anniversary despite the circumstances,” Chris says.
On Sunday, Sarah Bland, 33, and her wife, Krystal, also 33, took a long drive through their town of Lebanon, Tenn., in part to discuss what their new work-from-home arrangement would be. Sarah works as a project manager for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and has been working from her home office for the past month. The next day, Krystal, a respiratory therapist for a medical device company, joined the remote workforce as she set up to see patients virtually from the guest bedroom.
“For me, this has been a change of scenery,” Sarah tells CNBC Make It. “I’m pretty well-acquainted with sitting at a desk all day.
For Krystal, however, “this starts her new adventure with telehealth. Yesterday we set up an office in our guest room and got the work space suitable for her to talk to patients privately while I’m in my office doing my work.”
They talked about how they’d establish a new routine, including by replacing the hour-long commutes they shared with time to catch up over breakfast and lunch.
“I just got a note from my wife saying, ‘I’m making a sandwich; do you want one too?’ which is really nice,” Sarah says. “We’ll probably be doing more lunches together during the day.”
She adds that their ability to adapt and rely on each other has gotten them through three years of marriage, and it’s already helped them process the weight of the pandemic. On a practical level, that includes discussing what household errands need to be run during the day, when public crowds are smaller, and taking a divide-and-conquer approach as to who will go where and when.
“The best thing we’ve been able to work through is sharing our concerns with each other about things going on,” Kelsey says. “It’s not an easy time right now, but we’ve been able to talk through things and find ways to adjust together.”
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