In March of 2020, around 70% of the full-time workforce officially became at-home workers. That chunk of the population took up video conferencing — Zooming, using Microsoft Office, meeting on Google Hangouts, or what have you — so much that Microsoft Teams saw a 500% uptick in usage in just the first two months of the pandemic. In short: A lot of people are at home, and a lot of them are using video conferencing tools to communicate with their co-workers.
In theory, this could have worked well: People were operating as they did normally — only, they were at home. In practice, things were more hairy, particularly in the familial space. What do you do when you have to take a Zoom call, but your spouse is practicing their talk for a future meeting? Will your boss be upset if they see your kids taking an online dance class in the background of your one-on-one? And what should you do if your boss has a particularly annoying laugh that happens to get on your wife’s nerves? Ahead, tips to keep your home life healthy amid the increase in video conferencing.
Establish a “Zoom Room”
The kids may not remember, but, once upon a time, the world had these things called “phone booths.” (Clark Kent changed in one, remember?) A phone booth afforded those speaking on the phone in public some privacy. Phone booths also kept unnecessary noise on the sidewalk to a minimum. While phone booths are a thing of the past, you can still apply the principles of a phone booth to your home: Establish a private (ideally soundproof) room for all video conferences. If you have the space for two rooms, even better. A “Zoom room” can even be your own home office, so long as that office has a door. Maybe you use the pantry for your Zooms. Maybe it’s the currently-empty nursery or the garage. You can even use a spacious bathroom. Whatever it is, just make sure your video conferences aren’t bleeding into the living space of your home. Keep your Zooms to yourself!
Make a “Zoom Room” Schedule
If you live with someone who also works from home, you are going to see some work-from-home traffic, particularly in small spaces. Try to keep things organized by making a “Zoom room” schedule — in other words, treat the Zoom room as you would a conference room in an office space. Book it in advance, and let your household know that you’ll be using it. Be respectful of your new “co-workers.” If they’ve reserved the room, that means you simply cannot use it! Do your best to run a tight ship with the schedule: No one likes a conference room confrontation a la “there’s only room for one Sheriff in this town.”
Keep Your Zooming to a Minimum
Regular video calls have a deleterious effect on all workers; you should try your best to limit them! Mental health ramifications aside, video phone calls in the home can begin to feel like an invasion. After all, they do involve nonresidents of the home peering into your intimate spaces (like, say, your pantry). This can put excess pressure on the residents of the home to keep spaces tidy and “presentable” for co-workers. The fewer phone calls you have, the easier the home will be.
Say you’ve decided to take your video call al fresco. So, you put on your headphones and, holding your phone high, you start to pace. This is actually good for you! Research indicates that people are less focused during video calls because they cannot pace, as they usually might during a phone call. However, taking your phone call on-the-go allows you to poison the communal space with work stress. It is disrespectful to your spouse — who may be focusing on a household chore or their own work — to walk into their space chatting about last quarter’s numbers.
Schedule Your Own Breaks
No one is going to schedule your breaks for you. If you schedule meetings with co-workers, you can also schedule breaks for yourself. Research indicates that purposeful breaks — not aimless, look-at-your-phone breaks — can improve focus and productivity in the long term. This can also help your household understand when you are and are not available for family-adjacent activities. Schedule a break every day from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and let your whole family know that you’ll be around for chats, snacktime, or a quick at-home workout. Be very clear with your boundaries: When you’re not on break, you’re not available for these activities. But during these very specific times, you are 100% focused on your family.
Get Out of the House — Together
Much of the perceived toxicity that comes from working from home with your spouse is simply from being inside for too long. As the kids say, sometimes you just need to get outside and “touch some grass.” (“Touch grass” is a popular meme that is deployed when a person on the internet is getting excessively angry over something inconsequential, i.e. “No one cares about the Star Wars casting. Go touch some grass.”) Getting outside at least once a day can help both your mental health and your relationship to your spouse. Go for a walk! Take the dog to a local coffee shop and leave your phone at home. Make your way to the local farmer’s market and buy your spouse some spontaneous flowers.
Working from home can be toxic because it blends the boundaries between work and home. This harms spousal relationships because, all of a sudden, the space that belonged to you and your spouse now also belongs to your boss. Taking your relationship outside flips this dynamic on its head: Because work has moved into the home, you’re going to move out of the home (albeit temporarily) for your relationship.
Let the Household Know When You’re on Air
So, you’ve established a Zoom Room. Now, you need to let your family know that you’re currently “on air.” On Air Warning is a computer-adjacent warning light that can alert both your family members and yourself that you are currently “on air.” This light is actually one of the easiest ways to communicate with the younger members of your household (those 5 and below). Your five-year-old may not have the ability to understand time yet, so telling them “I’ll be away for 30 minutes” may not be helpful. Having them watch your “on-air warning” light until it eventually indicates the meeting is over is much easier, not to mention a little fun for your average five-year-old. An on-air warning light can prevent mid-meeting mishaps like the famous 2017 interruption of a 2017 BBC news interview.
Keep Up with Household Chores — No Matter How Hard You’re Working for Your Boss
If both spouses are working full-time, the household chores become “side work,” or work that is otherwise seen as not a priority. While this alone is not a bad thing, ignoring household chores can put a strain on your relationship if your spouse or partner takes on more of them than you do.
Allowing your partner to take on too many chores is an easy mistake to make, especially if you’re working from home full-time. You may struggle to prioritize mopping the floors if you’re always five feet away from a report that desperately needs to be written. Your partner, depending on their work status, may not necessarily struggle with this. Regardless, you are responsible for ensuring a fair division of labor between yourself and your spouse. If you must, start a chore chart, making sure your partner has a say in what chores they take on. Then, put your daily household chores at the same level of importance as your work-from-home labor. Doing the dishes is just as valuable as that report!
Additionally: Keeping your work area clean may improve your productivity. Research shows that our brains prefer order; the messier our workspace is, the more likely we are to procrastinate (watching TV, playing games on your phone, or meandering around the kitchen with a bag of Chee-tos in your hands).
Use a Zoom Background
You’re inviting your co-workers into your private home. This is an invasion of not just your space, but also your spouse’s. You can retain some of your in-home privacy by inserting a false background over your video chats. These backgrounds will mask your surroundings, keeping your co-workers at a professional distance. A background may also give you and your spouse the leeway to leave the workspace a little more cluttered than you would for company.
To insert a background, you will need to active your virtual background ability in your Zoom account. You can do this by signing into Zoom.us with your username and password and working under the “settings” tab.
Virtual backgrounds are not just the one-stop shop for a clean-seeming home: They may also prevent workplace bias by obscuring your home life.
Keep the General Work Hours to a Minimum
Do you feel like you’re working more hours, now that you’re working from home? Your hunch is probably correct. CNN reported in 2021 that working from home appeared to increase the average workday by 2.5 hours, per a New York-based VPN company. Without a daily commute or office drudgery, you’re suddenly expected to take on more work than usual. You also no longer have a clear end of the work day: Should you sign off at 5:00 p.m., or should you stay online for an additional hour to make sure you meet your deadlines? While staying online may feel like the right thing to do by your boss, signing off at 5:00 p.m. is healthier in the long run for both yourself and your spouse. Working long hours is associated with a higher risk of divorce or separation, particularly for women, according to a 2019 study on Korean working families. Not to mention, longer work hours will affect your own health. Don’t let work creep into your home, even though you work from home.