We have been running Mightywaters as a husband and wife team for nearly 22 years now. For most of this time, our office has been at our house. During these two decades, we have raised two daughters, survived numerous economic downturns, emerged through a few significant illnesses and have even written a book together.
Just about all of us are now spending far more time than normal with our partners (and kids and pets). So how can we live well and work well as families when most of us aren’t really used to this?
As a business, our focus is on navigating the seas of change well. Mark has worked in the field of human dynamics for over three decades. Anna is a psychologist and a qualified relationship counsellor.
This current crisis has caused us to step back and think about how we have managed to work well and stay together for over 20 years. Although the Covid-19 situation is unprecedented, we have had plenty of experience of living in each other’s pockets, we have weathered many storms as a couple and as a business, and we would like to share some of our learning with you in the hope that it will be helpful:
- There is no such thing as a perfect set up
Working from home in the same space with your partner (and maybe kids and pets) is incredibly difficult. One thing we learnt very quickly when we started out was that you just can’t replicate whatever working arrangements you had up to this point and that you cannot assume everything is going to be okay. A new way of working as a family unit is needed.
And, before you even start to talk to each other, you need to put aside any assumptions you might have about what’s ideal, right or even acceptable to one side. This is unchartered territory and you’ll need to work things through together.
- Put your partner first
Yes, it is that easy … not!!! Whatever your role is at work, you are not solely in charge at home. It is a team effort. Focusing first on the needs of your partner will get you off to a good start. Being self-centred is likely to trigger a defensive reaction in your partner and undermine trust. It’s not a good place to build from. A couple of good questions to talk about are:
- What are we trying to achieve together?
- What would a good outcome look like?
- Cut each other some slack and do not deny each other’s goodwill
Once you have established a way you could work together at home, the next challenge is to make that happen. Intention and reality often misalign! Recognising that it won’t be perfect and that you may not quite keep to your agreements is really important. See it as a work in progress and make adjustments rather than as something fixed and permanent. And … don’t personalise it when things don’t go to plan. It’s usually not personal. As a relationship counsellor, Anna saw many toxic relationships, and toxicity often starts when partners assume that the other person has done something out of spite. We are all imperfect and prone to mistakes and, unless you have partnered with an abusive person (in which case you should get out of the relationship immediately), your partner is unlikely to be doing things to irritate you on purpose.
- Talk, and talk, and then talk some more
It’s really important to keep lines of communication open. As you enter this new world of home working you will have hopes and fears about what’s going to happen. Talk about these. Be honest with each other.
Expect emotions to run high at times. Many of us find it difficult to identify our emotions correctly and/or express our emotions appropriately. Anna for instance often expresses fear through anger, whereas Mark will try to control fears by going into action mode. You may not be aware of how you are reacting. So it’s important to stop, tune in and become aware of the impact you are having on others.
Talking also means listening. So, listen to your partner attentively. Often, it’s through simply listening that we contain one another’s anxiety. Above all, do not use your list of fears to open up a blame game or finger-pointing. Leverage your hopes to shape the kind of outcomes you’d like to see as a family at the end of this season.
- Build on Strengths
Focusing on our strengths is extremely important. You may have shared strengths like being able to build community and relationships with others, or being creative. You will certainly bring strengths particular to you. Play to these strengths and use them for the good of the family.
Appreciative inquiry is a technique that’s a great way to identify and build on strengths and it will also help if you are hitting an emotional low. Essentially appreciative inquiry is a way of questioning which focusses on the good things that are happening and reframes the bad things as learning opportunities. Questions you might ask are: What is good about this situation? What is working well? What are we bringing to create this situation? What is our learning and how can we put that learning into practice? What would better look like?
You may already be familiar with other tools that can help you think about similarities, differences and strengths. For example, you may have used Strengths Finder, Insights, Myers-Briggs etc. at work. Share this knowledge about yourself with your partner and family. See what they think. See if they cast a light on some of the pinch points about living in the same space.
One of the things we have learnt is that we found that we couldn’t actually share the same workspace together. Mark likes to work in a more structured and organised way, whereas Anna needs to have some “creative disorder “to function properly. So we have had to find different places in the house to work from. On the plus side, we also found that although we need to be planned and organised to run a business, we are both quite okay when things don’t go to plan – we are both ‘Ps’ – Perceivers – in Myers-Briggs parlance. This has helped enormously in getting the right balance between planning and dealing with emergence.
It is helpful to talk openly about your strengths and weaknesses. (Again, this isn’t an opportunity to produce a ‘shame list’ of things that irritate you about your partner). We all have behavioural patterns that can be less than helpful at times. For example, Mark had to learn to acknowledge that he can be quite stubborn and that it takes a while for him to shift from a particular viewpoint. Anna has a tendency to erupt like a volcano in a conflict situation before entering a calmer state when she becomes more receptive to discussion.
And … where appropriate involve your kids in the discussions too (if you have them and they are old enough). We found that even when very young, our children really understood why we were at home and the part they played in making it work and they were very perceptive when it came to identifying our strength and weaknesses. This ultimately helped them with their own self -awareness. You may be surprised at how big a part your children can play in making this a successful and fun experience to the benefit of all.
- Set boundaries and establish routines
Working at home creates a real mess with boundaries between home life and work life. Our experience is that it’s all about setting boundaries and not about finding balance. Our experience too is that working from home strips out a lot of ‘noise and distraction’ we have at work – the social time, chats, impromptu meetings, meaningless meetings and so on. This means that a new, shared routine, needs to be created.
This means agreeing what’s work time and non-work time. It might mean taking time out as a couple or family to have lunch together. It might mean working in the evenings so that during the day you can share time with the kids. Whatever, your routine looks like be clear about what’s work time and what’s not work time and stick to it.
Oh… and working from home means that you are confronted with all those DIY tasks or household chores you have been meaning to get around to. If you need those productive ‘procrastination’, ‘displacement activities’ (which we find time for at work and which most of us need) then recognise them for what they are and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself tidying a cupboard or sorting out the shed. We may need these times.
- Care for one another
We would suggest that the most important outcome is that you and your families emerge physically healthy, in good mental health and together. Work for all of us is really important and we all want to do a great job, but your wellbeing and wellbeing of your family are paramount. So look after yourselves. Take the online fitness class. Take up some new hobby or learning. Stay connected with colleagues, friends and others in your network. Get outside (and in the current climate, safely and within guidelines).
Please let us know what you think of this piece – warts and all!! Please also let us know what you have found helpful and we’ll pass it on. And if you found this article helpful, please share it with colleagues and others in your network.
Finally, we want to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and we too are learning through this new reality. But we hope these pointers that have served us well, will help you too.