Working from home is a change for the individual as they are taken from their office environment and the comforts and structure found there and asked to be as productive working remotely. This is a definite challenge for individuals but there is another element to working from home which can be equally challenging which is the impact on the household, the relationships, structures, boundaries and expectations within that space and between individuals.
We surveyed hundreds of people from around the globe, experienced in working from home full time within the family home or shared household and asked them what they believed the key issues were and what their top tips were for resolving those issues.
The top 3 issues were as follows:
- Keeping the household aware of work status during the day (50% responses)
- Keeping disciplined in adhering to a consistent start and end of working day (47% responses)
- Managing noise within the household environment (36% responses)
*Candidates were able to select multiple answers
What we found interesting about those top 3 issues is that the corresponding advice given to resolve those issues was very simple to implement – from using visual cues like putting a sign on the door, sharing your daily schedule with the household, closing your workspace down at the end of day, and investing in noise cancelling headphones. It appears that even though working from home does pose challenges, the top issues can be resolved simply.
At the other end of the scale what was surprising was that some of those topics that we may have assumed would be crucial and prevalent as issues – children and personal relationships – did not come through as such, instead accounting for just 38% combined of the responses received. It appears that the more experience you gain at working from home the more overarching issues such as children and relationships though real become less accentuated. Evidently, the household becomes used to the environment and dynamic and knows how to accept and manage the situation.
In relation to children, our survey explored what age range is impacted most by having people work from home full time. 50% of the respondents said that children in the age range 6-12 years of age were impacted and that this age group requires the most support to ensure their needs are accommodated. This suggests that at this age range there is the dual challenge of entertainment and supervision which is a draw on attention and can lead to challenges for the worker and household.
Surprisingly, Accommodating Household Chores into the Working from Home situation also scored low as a key issue with just 28% of responses. It appears that having to have more structure to the working day also flows into having more structure into the overall day and that chores become better planned with greater discipline and a clear understanding of the responsibilities across the different individuals in the space.
This discipline also seems to flow into meals and meal-times with just 22% of the responses deeming it an issue, it appears that you get better at planning mealtimes the longer you work from home too and seek to utilise these as breaks to enjoy the benefits of working from home in terms of work life balance and time with family if applicable.
We partnered with the Remote Work Association on this research who highlighted this is not a normal structured move to remote working for many and so there would be additional challenges, but the research illuminated a path for new to remote workers. The overarching sense from the respondents was that while there was a new dynamic which had to be adapted to when working from home that the challenges were all surmountable and the overarching issues certainly eased with experience and time.
Our survey respondents were asked for their advice on how they combatted the issues faced so that those with less experience could have some actionable steps to quickly adapt and avoid stress and tension in relationships.
Keeping the household aware of work status:
Simply provide a visual cue when you require not to be disturbed, a do-not-disturb post-it on the door for example. Other ideas include having a chart on the door outlining when your key tasks are taking place that day. Some suggested even having a red/green light installed to show when it’s safe to enter! Away from these cues, maintaining a regular schedule can allow the household to anticipate and come to expect peak and deep focus times and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Adhering to consistent working hours
Plan the detail of each day and strictly adhere to breaks and meal times and at the end of each day physically close down the laptop or shut down the computer as a signal to you and your household that work is over. There will be a temptation to never switch off fully as you now share one space for work and leisure but this can cloud relationships as people are unsure whether you are fully present or still engaged with work.
Managing noise within the household
The overwhelming piece of advice here was to invest in noise cancelling headphones. The experienced working from home professionals acknowledge that noise within a shared environment is inevitable and hard to control much as in an office environment. Therefore the onus is on them to control noise being a distraction rather than on the rest of the household to be quiet.
Defining the workspace within the home
Do not use the social areas of the house, especially the dinner or kitchen table as it is unreasonable to stake a claim over part of the house that is used and shared frequently by all. Instead set up as far away from the busy parts of the house as possible, ideally in a room with a door that you can close. Another useful suggestion was to set up the workspace area as if it were a permanent space, it will help the rest of the household to respect and understand the physical boundaries better.
Responsibility for Household chores
An uncluttered, clean environment is deemed really important and the person working from home must take some responsibility for the house. However, it is noted that household tasks can impact productivity and blur boundaries if carried out during the working day. The majority of the advice is to carry out assigned household chores early before the start of the working day and be clear about what is your expected contribution.
Managing adult distractions during the day
The most often quoted piece of advice here is to simply share your calendar with your partner or household each day and be very specific when it’s important not to be disturbed. “I have a call at 11.00 with a key client for an hour’ is much better than ‘I have some calls to make before lunch’. Sharing that greater context allows others to recognise what’s important and protect you from distractions.
Managing children distractions during the day
Surprisingly the key piece of advice is simply to accept that children will be a distraction and to acknowledge that. Rather the guidance is to bring them into your working space, show them your work set up, let them participate in a casual video conference. Children are naturally curious so by removing the mystery of you working from home they will become acclimated to it sooner. Also, try matching your tasks with the different energy levels of the children throughout the day – choose times of the day when they are less active for your deep focus tasks and vice versa.
Scheduling meal times
Linked to adhering to consistent work hours, your detailed plan for the day should also include scheduled lunch and breaks. If you are using a messaging platform such as Slack or Teams, simply change your status to being at lunch so that your colleagues know not to disturb you and leave your phone at your workstation so you can be fully engaged for that period and not checking emails or texts.
Managing your relationship with your partner or other members of the household
Relationships don’t stop between the hours of 9 and 5, and it’s important for people who work from home to accept that they are impacting on the lives of others. Your loved ones will have spontaneous needs to communicate with you and rather than close them off during the working day the best piece of advice was to use messaging to stay in touch during your scheduled at-work hours. It is asynchronous in nature, doesn’t require immediate response but allows each of you to feel as if you are still in touch with each other. Strange as it may seem, to have the other person in the same house, and use WhatsApp to message them, but it is demonstrating that you are in work mode. Additionally, you need to recognise that this is a big change for them and you working from home will change their routines. Be understanding, communicate clearly and accept their will be a period of adjustment for everyone.
Megan from the Remote Work Association explained “If you’ve suddenly found yourself working from home for the first time and are trying to navigate managing relationships with housemates, partners, and children, think of those you share your home with as new co-workers, and use this as an opportunity to learn something new about their needs for success. Extend your new co-workers the same courtesies you would to your in-office coworkers by doing your best to respect their space and objectives. Set up a weekly household team meeting to discuss what’s working well and what can be improved, making sure to allow input from everyone. Welcome to your new office, it may not always be easy, but being as intentional with your home relationships as your office relationships will go a long way.”
By adopting even some of this advice one can begin to establish the communication channels and norms and boundaries required to alleviate some of the potential challenges when working from home.
These challenges can differ depending on the different statuses of the people within the household.
Household type comparisons:
Based on our respondents it could be seen that those who have partners that are stay at home compared to partners who also work from home, issues like noise management and human distractions are more common whereas adhering to work hours and scheduling meal times was a smaller issue. 33% of those with stay at home partners highlighted adhering to consistent working hours which is 25% less than those who would also have partners working from home (the most prevalent issue from that environment). We can see that for those households with multiple people working from home they may need to have a collective agreement and cue to end the working day while in a mixed household of working from home and stay at home clear communication about focus and schedule will be imperative to avoid noise and distractions occurring at crucial times.
The environments of working from home at a parent’s house and working from home with other housemates also sees contrasting issues. In an environment where there are only housemates it appears to be a more independent environment with less distractions and regular interactions which draw people away from work. The difference between those who lived with parents and with housemates who felt keeping the household aware of work status was 38% suggesting that it is more important to establish clear boundaries if you are working from your parent’s home and explain that during your work hours you cannot be consistently distracted. Similar to those households with multiple people working from home, those with housemates struggled to establish clear work hours which may be due to there being less of a social contract or pressure to give fully engaged time to them when compared to families or partners.
Each household and relationship will be somewhat unique in their experience and challenges but if people can come together, communicate and show empathy for others than they can make it work! Our findings indicate that there are actionable solutions for all the issues that are likely to arise in a household and a natural learning curve and adaptation.
Working from home can have amazing benefits for work life balance, relationships and health and wellbeing but it is a change from the typical structure of work and requires effort and understanding to make it a success.