Diane Selkirk, her husband, Evan Gatehouse, and their daughter, Maia, are used to being in close proximity to each other. The couple and their daughter traveled around the world on their sailboat, the Ceilydh, for eight years. Selkirk estimates their living space was about 400 square feet. She worked as a freelance writer while Gatehouse did contract work.
But there’s something different about the three of them living and working together in an 800-square-foot apartment during the pandemic, she says. On the boat, if she needed to concentrate and her family was being loud, “I could kind of whack them away,” she jokes. But that doesn’t work as well in a small apartment when two parents are working full time and their daughter is a student who has to cram for exams and fill out college applications.
But now the pandemic’s massive work-from-home experiment is beginning to draw to a close. Some companies, for better or worse, are accelerating their return-to-office plans. Firms that made announcements about endless remote work arrangements are now speeding up those office reopening plans.
And for some partners who have been navigating the challenges of living and working together under the same roof for more than a year, the prospect of one or both spouses returning to the office is a mixed bag of emotions. One survey by Groupon estimated that the additional togetherness is the equivalent of an extra four years of marriage. And while some research has found that forced togetherness brought couples closer, other research found some negative feelings brewing too.
Should they stay or should they go?
“I would say to my husband, ‘I married you forsaking all others, but not forsaking all others,” says psychologist and leadership consultant Camille Preston, founder and CEO of AIM Leadership. “I was going to have dinner with others. I was going to socialize with others.”
Preston says that it took a lot of communication and negotiation to come up with a system that allowed both of them to work, manage the household, and parent harmoniously. And while she’s looking forward to the time when she resumes her travel schedule and he heads back to the office, like many couples, they’re going to have to figure out all of that again.
“So, if my workplace wants me, but my husband doesn’t have to [go back] until October, does that mean he picks up the laundry and the [kids at daycare] and the groceries? How do you renegotiate all of that?” she muses. Everything from when the dog gets walked to when the laundry gets done will have to be decided.
Datis Mohsenipour, director of marketing for Outback Team Building and Training, says his firm has had a hybrid model for some time. His partner will go back to work full time in September, but they both have reservations, even though learning to work together in the same space has been challenging. “Her office did have a COVID scare before and it was handled quite slowly and poorly in our opinions,” he says.
Risk is another conversation couples need to have when one or both are going to be out with other people more, Preston says. When one person is out in the world and the other is home, how do you manage your risk tolerance for the virus? “That is going to be hard as people came up with their risk assessments—this is what we’re comfortable doing, this is what we’re not comfortable doing,” she says. “How do you recalibrate that?”
Adjusting to the new normal
Selkirk and Gatehouse have worked out a system where they touch base about each other’s schedules to ensure they have the quiet time they need for calls or work that requires focus. She says it will be a big change when he goes back to the office, but there may be some benefits. First, she won’t have to use the noise-canceling headphones his employer purchased for her as much. She’ll have more quiet time to work. And she notes that since they’ve both been home full time, their work-life balance has changed. “He spends a lot more time sitting at his computer in the evenings and stuff and just sort of being there, as opposed to being integrated with us,” she says.
Michael Hammelburger, CEO of the Bottom Line Group, a financial consulting firm, says the early days of working together took some adjustment. His wife had been working from home in her basement office and she could hear the footsteps upstairs or when her husband was coming down the steps to her office. “I didn’t have any ways to buffer myself,” she says. “I’m taping podcasts or I’m having client meetings, and all of a sudden he was here and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you in my space right now? Oh, you want a kiss? Great. Give me a kiss. Now go.'”
But after he went back to the office a few days each week starting at the beginning of June, she says she misses the companionship and rituals they developed, like daily walks and lunches together. He has the option to work from home Mondays and Fridays now, but she doesn’t anticipate that will last. “So, I’m trying to capture the moments when we have them and enjoy them. Because I do know that, at some point in time, he’ll be back in five days a week without a doubt,” she says.
Preston says that the next wave of change will be a different kind of challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. Couples will need to overcommunicate with each other and work on finding the best balance for them. “It’s not going to be one size fits all,” she says.