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Op-ed: Dr. Alyson Byrne

Co-habitation and co-working: What lessons will be gained from working from home together and apart?

By Dr. Alyson Byrne

“I know we shouldn’t complain since we are both working . . . but working from home together is hard!”

“Our work and home life is just one big blur.”

“Well, I mean it’s kind of nice, we had no idea that our relationship could survive being together this much . . . but it would be good to see real colleagues again.”

“We are loving working together at home – no rush in the mornings, we go for walks at lunch, we have more time to be an “us” – it’s actually been better than we thought!”

These are but a handful of comments I have received over the last few weeks from friends and colleagues who, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, suddenly and involuntarily find themselves working from home on a full-time basis.

COVID-19 and the public health measures resulting from the global pandemic have transformed the world of work. Many employees now find themselves working almost exclusively from home.

Normal routine disrupted

For people in a married or common-law relationship, they are navigating how to do so with their partner for what is likely the first time.

In some cases, both partners work from home – simultaneously not just rearing children, but teaching them, as well.

Never before have the boundaries between work and home been so blurred. Spouses are now each other’s co-workers and desk-mates, and they must negotiate in-house child care during their work day.

“People work best when they engage in work-family segmentation, i.e., where work and family are strictly separated.”

The normal routine of “going to work” has been heavily disrupted.

While there are plenty of anecdotes and memes about these challenges (and even some benefits), any real understanding of the short- and long-term consequences of these new work arrangements must be examined, especially because we are still in the early stages of this pandemic.

My research examines the intersection of work and family demands, particularly with respect to people’s romantic relationships and their careers.

What we have learned from previous research is that many people work best when they engage in work-family segmentation, i.e., where work and family are strictly separated.

COVID-19 has shattered that possibility for so many couples.

Questions arise

In the face of all this upheaval, so many new questions are raised about the intersection of work and family.

For example, might seeing the real demands of your partner’s job so personally translate into more supportive partners once the pandemic ends?

“How important is childcare, or the lack thereof, to these effects?”

Or could the stress of working together from home exacerbate existing marital or relationship difficulties?

How important is childcare, or the lack thereof, to these effects? Is the traditional disproportionate burden for family responsibilities worsened during troubled times?

Answers to these and other similar questions will help shape work policies in the future, and the ways in which spouses can support each other’s careers.

Researchers at work

My colleagues, Dr. Julian Barling and PhD candidate Anika Cloutier, and I are conducting research examining these very questions.

Specifically, we are conducting a study on Canadian couples where at least one partner has been working from home during the pandemic.

To do so, we ask couples to separately answer confidential surveys at three different time points – now, while work-from-home measures are in place; when the work-from-home measures are lifted; and some time into the “new normal,” i.e., a return to the traditional workplace.

If you would like to participate in this research and share your experiences with us, please visit here.

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