Working from home can mean sharing space unexpectedly — with a spouse vying for the best home office setup, a roommate whose entertainment systems hog your Wi-Fi bandwidth or a child whose definition of “important meeting” differs from your own.
How do you create a work environment where you remain productive? It’s about communicating, negotiating and establishing boundaries.
“Take the time to sit down and actually have a conversation about how we are going to do this in a way that’s not going to drive us crazy,” says Carol Frohlinger, president of Negotiating Women, Inc.
The key to thriving in your home workspace is effective communication. You need to know how to approach the conversation.
Tips for Good Communication
1. Don’t make assumptions.
Without an explanation of mental, physical and temporal boundaries, it will be easy for others to overstep them accidentally.
“Where you have the most interpersonal conflict is if we make assumptions about what other people know about our expectations,” says Ascan Koerner, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. “We need to clearly sit down with roommates and communicate them.”
2. Recognize the needs of others.
You may feel your priorities outrank those of the people you live with. But needs unrelated to work are legitimate too, Koerner says, so don’t be dismissive. Once you acknowledge others’ needs, they will be more willing to compromise.
3. Negotiate with goals, not the outcome, in mind.
Don’t stake out a position on something before a conversation takes place. Instead, figure out what you want out of your working arrangements and explore multiple options through conversation.
“Think about what creative solutions can happen that will meet the needs of each of the parties,” Frohlinger says.
4. Listen — and be listened to.
If you feel your needs are being ignored, it’s easy to become frustrated. To make sure the issue doesn’t fester, talk with the people you share space with right away. Approach the situation with vulnerability instead of anger. Koerner says expressing vulnerability will motivate others to help you.
“Generally speaking, if you need something from the other person, it makes sense to acknowledge the need rather than complain that they somehow failed to give you what you want,” he says.
Listening should go both ways.
“A lot of times when we negotiate, we’re really not listening well. We’re waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can make our point,” Frohlinger says.
Keep these tips in mind as you establish your new work environment. Beyond that, some strategies require more specific approaches.
Negotiating a Shared Space With Other Workers
In this situation, prioritize setting up workspaces. Frohlinger suggests working in completely separate spaces; if that’s not an option, then create a shared space where each person owns a section. With clear boundaries, you won’t be encroaching on each other.
“It could be annoying if you have to come in and before you can start working, you have to get rid of all of the other person’s stuff,” Frohlinger says.
After establishing workspaces, do a daily check-in to see how the arrangement is working. This allows you to address areas of concern before they become bigger issues.
“Don’t assume people can read your mind,” Koerner says. “You really need to articulate your expectations and your boundaries.”
Setting Boundaries With Adults Who Are Not Working
In this scenario, set physical boundaries to minimize interruptions during work hours. Since nonworkers may be free and tempted to talk to you, establish physical indicators of when you’re working and not working. Examples include:
- Wearing headphones to indicate that you’re busy.
- Hanging a “Do not disturb” sign on your office door or workspace.
- Making simple wardrobe changes: wearing your hat backward for “busy” or forward for “free.”
- Sitting in a specific room. If you’re in a shared space — such as the kitchen or living room — then you’re available to talk.
“The friction comes when you look like you’re not busy, and then you’re disturbed and then you’re mad that you’re getting disturbed,” Koerner says.
Communicating Effectively With Children About Boundaries While You Work
Young children respond to clear communication. In this case, explain your boundaries in terms they can understand. If you’re working and can’t be interrupted, describe that in a way that’s relatable.
“You can say, ‘Oh, this is like school. At school, you’re not allowed to talk during class, and I’m not allowed to during work. This is like class.’ Make an analogy that they can understand,” Koerner says.
Establishing incentives for good behavior can also help you work well at home with children. If they don’t disturb you for a period of time, reward the kids with a walk or playtime outside.
“Recognize that they also have legitimate needs. They’re bored,” Koerner says. “Acknowledging that they have legitimate needs goes a long way.”
To squeeze their activities into your day, try to schedule work sessions around your children’s usual nap times and leave other chunks of time empty. If you simply don’t have time for extended breaks, work with other adults in the house to divide parental responsibilities. Share daily schedules with each other to see when each person has free time and if there are any work assignments with flexible deadlines.
“That’s where I think you have to negotiate with the other person who’s responsible for their health and well-being,” Frohlinger says. “Somebody has to focus on the children. You can’t have two people working and expect that a 2-year-old is going to be able to fend for himself.”
Set your boundaries and expectations with your company. If you need to take midday breaks to attend to your children, talk to your manager and explain the situation. Communicate that you’ll continue to meet deadlines, and when possible, set your out-of-office alert or calendar so your co-workers know when you aren’t available.