Work & Money

Helpful advice for how to work from home — together

Collaboration, relationship and co-working experts share their insights.

Collaboration, relationship and co-working experts share their insights

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Wondering how to fairly share common spaces with roommates while working from home? Get your kids to behave while you're on a conference call? Not make your partner cringe with your co-working quirks, especially when you're together 24/7? 

You're obviously not alone. For many Canadians, this month has been a teleworking crash course, as offices closed en masse in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some suddenly found themselves with children underfoot as daycares and schools closed, and/or with new colleagues: a partner, roommates, maybe extended family members.  

To help new teleworkers adjust to what might be a months-long experience of working from home in a shared space, we reached out to four Canadian experts — productivity coach Clare Kumar; Amanda Munday, founder and CEO of parent-friendly workspace The Workaround; clinical psychologist Nicole McCance; and Dr. Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, professor at the School of Administrative Science at University of Québec (TELUQ) — for their productivity, relationship management and co-working tips. 

Here's to working from home harmoniously. 

Start with a household needs assessment

This needs assessment will help you set a schedule that works for you and your housemates. "You've got conversations that need to happen within the household, and they might drive conversations that you might need to have with people at work," says Kumar. "This is the biggest work-life integration challenge we've ever had, and it requires communication, co-operation, collaboration, and creativity on all fronts."

For example, young children might require a midday nap, while some professionals will have to be on multiple video calls every day while working from home.

"Anybody who's in the household has some basic needs," says Kumar. "We have needs for connection, interaction, movement, and rest — all of those things need to be in play." Start with what you personally need, and then see what everyone else in the household will need to be able to thrive, suggests Kumar. 

For couples living together, it's very important to communicate your requirements (and ask for support) during this time. "There are no rules anymore; this is unprecedented territory," says McCance. "[Right] now there might be one person who has more flexible work hours, and one person who's working on a project from home and can't be flexible. It's more important than ever that you [voice] your needs." 

Set boundaries 

Whether you live with family or roommates, it's helpful to set boundaries and stay objective, advises McCance. For example, having a simple schedule for cooking and cleaning times and responsibilities can be very productive when dishes are starting to pile up. "Maybe that worked itself out before because barely anybody was home, but now it's like, 'OK, how are we going to manage this?'" 

Staying productive can be more challenging when not everyone in the household is working from home. For example, one roommate might be temporarily laid off while another is still teleworking full-time. "If you're the one working, you need to set boundaries," says McCance. "It's really important to treat yourself like you're at the office so you have a productive day, and then you could enjoy the end of your day when you're done work." That might mean sequestering yourself in a room and not answering texts or questions from your roommate while you're working. 

Establish a schedule that works for your family

Rainbow-coded schedules and itemized day-by-day activities are great, but success doesn't have to be that complicated. "The most important thing that parents can do right now is to establish a routine that works for your family, in this moment," says Munday. And keep in mind that you don't have to be tied to your computer from nine to five. "If your employer doesn't require that you be online or on sales calls or on customer support calls during specific hours, then taking that afternoon to rest, spend time with your kids, work on some activities with them and then coming back online for a couple of hours in the evening might be what you need to do right now in order to balance it all," says Munday. 

Create an environment that feels good for everyone 

The ideal work-at-home set? "A closed room to work, where you can feel comfortable and speak normally," says Dr. Tremblay. That's especially helpful if you're expected to participate in video and audio meetings with colleagues. If that's not possible, it might help for each adult working from the home to  be far apart enough that they won't be disturbed by each other's noises. 

Regardless, stay organized as much as possible — especially in a small apartment, clear systems can help. "Use a box to store each person's working stuff, so that they can bring it to where they need to, but then they can pack it away," says Kumar. 

Even in typical open-concept offices and co-working spaces, productivity can falter because we can lose our ability to focus and think straight, says Kumar. Some individuals can be highly sensitive to environmental factors such as light, noise, and temperature fluctuations. "You've got to calm the environment so that more people can be able to thrive and focus in it," by dialing down the "abundance of noise and visual stimulation," says Kumar. "A predominant recommendation would be to cater to the most sensitive people amongst us so that we're not giving those people undue stress." 

Accept (some) noise

"It's very confusing, especially for young children, when we say 'everybody be quiet' and then we get on our computers and we're really animated on our virtual call," says Munday, who suggests that parents working from home try to match volume levels depending on the work task in front of them. "If you need to do some quiet work and write emails, or produce some written content of some kind, that's a really great time to put your kids in front of books or any craft, anything that's quiet, so that the whole house is quiet." Everyone in the household can be "quiet working" at the same time — then, when you're making calls the kids can have screens on or play with trucks or Lego or do dress up, Munday suggests. "The volume is up and we're all doing similar activities." 

Don't forget about those good office practices, like an ergonomic set up

"When we go from a workplace to our home space, we often are looking at completely different office set-ups, and ergonomics often go by the wayside," says Kumar. "I would encourage people to make sure how they work physically supports their bodies, and to get enough movement in the day to keep their energy up."

Be realistic with your expectations — and relax some of those rules

"I think we just need to cut ourselves all a little slack. We've all just undergone a really big shock and change in our routine," Dr. Tremblay says. If you are working from home while also supervising young children, neither you nor your employer should expect that your efficiency and schedule will remain completely unchanged.

And, it's totally ok to break the rules right now when it comes to screen time. "Break the rules and let your kids watch TV if you [and your partner] both have to work, or give them the iPad a little bit longer," says McCance. "What else is there to do ... we don't really have choices like we used to." You might strictly limit your children's time on devices normally, but these are not normal circumstances, McCance advises relaxing the household rules a little if it means creating a little space to get something accomplished. 

Acknowledge your feelings, embrace positive thinking and self-care

McCance notes that without access to our usual coping mechanisms, it's likely we'll feel some extra stress and even be short with our housemates and families. She suggests focusing on what does help, that is still within reach.

"Ask yourself, 'what do I have control over that is going to improve my mood and my environment'," says McCance. "You can't go to your yoga studio right now, you can't go to your favourite wine bar for that date that helps you reconnect every week with your friends or your partner … but you can have dance parties with your kids, you can have bubble baths, you can play calming or upbeat music, drink warm tea, sit in your pyjamas, declutter your space." McCance also recommends breathing exercises, meditation apps, and video and virtual therapy services.   

In short, she encourages "a bit of acceptance" right now, even though this is not what we want or what we might be used to — dwelling on what we can't have or do just leads to frustration, says McCance. 


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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