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Working from Home with Your Spouse: The Triumphs and Tribulations

This weekend marks our one year anniversary in Traverse City. It’s been great, but of course challenging at times. Most humans are creatures of habit, and introducing new variables into one’s life is stressful. And we’ve had a lot of new.

New house. New people. New community. New gyms. New schools. Even seemingly simple things like new grocery stores to navigate add thin layers of complexity to our already busy lives.

One of the biggest changes we’ve had to get used to is how we work. For almost 10 years we ran our marketing agency out of an office space in metro Detroit. Then we pivoted in order to enable our move north. We transitioned our business to a virtual environment. Everyone on our team started working from home. Not only that, but about five months ago we started this blog, which is also a joint venture.

We discussed the pros and cons, and tips and tricks, of running a virtual business in a post earlier this year. We’re asked quite a bit what it’s like to run a virtual business – questions about how to manage a team of employees and serve a stable of clients located across the country while working in a remote environment. But far more often we’re quizzed (and I say “quizzed” because the inquiry is typically made with a quizzical-bordering-on-befuddled look on the person’s face) about a more personal dynamic of our working relationship: What’s it like running a business from home with your spouse?

My answer is usually a perfunctory, “It’s great, but we have our moments,” which is true, but gives short shrift to the challenges (and, yes, benefits) of adding additional complexity on top of a marital relationship. So today I’m going to try to put some meat on those bones.

For some of you out there who may be considering working with your spouse this post may provide some inspiration to push forward. For others it may lead you to say, “Hell no!”. For those of you who would never, ever, come Hell or high water, under no circumstances consider working with your spouse, well, this should provide a little peek under the circus tent.

Working From Home

There are two primary elements to our new work arrangement, working from home, and working together without the buffer of employees being present other than via Skype, phone or email.

I know that some people, especially those who have never done it, believe that they would have a hard time working from home. That home improvement projects, an overflowing laundry hamper, and other household chores would beckon them away from their work. Me? Not so much. Just ask Heather.

She would be quick to tell you that I don’t notice these things when I’m not working, so there’s no reason I would while I am. Plus, every time I pick up a hammer, screwdriver, saw or drill, I typically have to hire someone to come in for a “redo” anyway. For me, the economics of distraction just don’t make sense. Better for everyone that I keep my eyes on the screen and hands on the keyboard.

I’ve read about lots of different “hacks” that people employ in order get in the right state of mind to work from home. For example, some people apparently walk out their front door in the morning (as they did when they commuted to an office) and then immediately walk in the back door. That’s just weird.

Others put on a suit, or at least business casual clothing, even if they have no plans to leave their basement office. Who comes up with this stuff?

My theory is that if someone is prone to distraction in an outside office, then he will be distracted in a home office (and vice versa). The problem is that, at home, he will be immersed in a more target rich environment. While it may be possible for someone to spend all day in an office on Facebook with the computer screen strategically positioned to shield its contents from a cubicle passerby, it’s far easier to screw off at home, sprawled on the couch binge watching old episodes of Quantum Leap on Netflix.

To me there are really only five requirements to successfully work from home:

  • A dedicated space (inviolable by the children)
  • Good Wifi
  • The right cloud-based software
  • A pot full of coffee
  • A pantry full of snacks

That’s it. If you have these things at your disposal and you’re still having trouble being productive, then it’s not because there’s something else you need to add to your toolkit, it’s probably because there’s something you need to get rid of: a bad habit – be it social media or a laundry compulsion – that manifests as a distraction.

Keep it simple. Limit the distractions. Get up from your desk and walk the dog for 15 minutes once in awhile. Working from home – free from the office drama and gossip – can and should be easy, and if you can pull it off working from home can be hugely additive to your happiness because it can free up more time to do things you love.


Working From Home with Your Spouse

Working from home with your spouse, on the other hand, poses a few more challenges.

When you marry someone you love, lots of great things happen. You get to laugh, cry, communicate, commiserate and wake up next to your best friend every day. You get to start a family, and face life’s challenges together. These things aren’t always easy, but many come naturally.

What doesn’t come naturally? Working together. Especially working together from home. In the same room. Six feet from one another.

That takes work. But in the end, if you put the work in, it’s worth it. Because all of those things – the laughing, the crying, the shared challenges and triumphs – that are great about life with your spouse, can be great about running a business with your spouse, too.

We would never try to suggest a “how to” guide to working with your spouse. Every person, marriage and business is different, and the dynamics involved are too intensely personal for there to be any playbook to follow. That said, there are undoubtedly some common tribulations and triumphs that couples face.

Here are a couple of things about working together that we struggle with:

Space and Individuality

When we work together all day, and then transition to parent mode at the end of the work day, it’s difficult for either of us to find space for a little alone time to decompress. And while in many ways it’s nice to face life’s challenges together as partners, sometimes it’s difficult for each of us to maintain our own sense of identity and individuality.

Not only are we wrapped up in each other’s business all day, we’re in very close physical proximity to one another. Ever been in a bar with dueling pianos? Yeah, that’s kind of our setup. To alleviate this we get out of the house from time to time. Heather will go for a walk, or I’ll go work at the coffee shop for the morning. A little space can go a long way.

Defining Roles

As much as we try not to, like the octogenarian with the stubby pencil at the baseball game, we both keep score from time to time. Who took the kids to school, who gave them a bath, who went to the grocery store. In many marriages, particularly those where one spouse works outside the home and the other stays home, work and home roles are defined and expectations are set accordingly.

In our situation, where our workday begins and ends at virtually the same time, we have a more loose approach. We tackle tasks together – work and home – and so we are able to accomplish a great deal. But because we haven’t clearly defined our roles at home, then it can be more glaring when one person ends up shouldering more of the burden. There are many days where the time comes to pick up the kids from school or camp, and we look at each other expectantly because we both have more work to do. There’s no real solution to this challenge, at least under our current circumstances – it’s simply a consequence of structuring our lives in the manner we have chosen.

Here are a few things about working together that bring us joy:

Jumping Up and Down

Back when I was practicing law, I’d talk to Heather about my day and she’d politely listen and nod, but frankly I’m surprised she didn’t nod off. The same was probably true of me listening to her talk about her job. But now, when we talk about work during non-work hours, we both can relate and get excited about what’s being said. We probably do it too much, but work seeps into many of our conversations – even if we’re out to dinner. That’s just the way we are wired and we like discussing business. Everyone says that you should try to draw a clear line between home and work, but idea generation doesn’t work according to a schedule. There’s nothing I enjoy more than watching Heather jump up and down in the kitchen at 9 pm on a Tuesday because she’s excited about a new idea or initiative that we’ve cooked up.

An Education for Our Kids

I derive joy and satisfaction knowing that our three girls will have no confusion about what it means to be a strong, confident, successful woman. They get to witness it every day while watching their mother in action. The education they will get observing and assisting us in our business is something they won’t get in school, nor if we worked in an office. We’re conflicted at times because by working out of our home, work inevitably encroaches on our home life. But over the long-term we think that by making the girls a part of our business they will be better for it.

Marriage Comes First

At the end of the day, we both share the same perspective that our marriage comes first. We’re not perfect, obviously, and there have been many times where a tough day in the office has spilled over into a tough evening at home. But we’re both on the same page that a successful business means nothing without a successful marriage. Without the latter the former goes away anyway. Because of this, arguments rarely linger on too long unresolved – after all, you kind of have to figure it out when you know you’ll be sitting six feet away from each other the next morning.

A New Perspective

Finally, since this a post about our working relationship, I thought you might like to hear directly from Heather on this topic – I certainly know I wanted to. She’s managed to stay behind the scenes designing, taking photos, managing the website, editing my writing, and generally determining the strategic direction for the blog, but it’s past time for her to weigh in directly. So I lobbed her a few questions so the real brains behind both of our operations could add some perspective:

What is the best part of working with your spouse?:

Good question! Hmmm, let me think about that one.

In all seriousness, I really enjoy the opportunity to work with a creative person like Jay. Sometimes we get carried away – (okay we get carried away a lot) and talk about work way too much. But what we typically talk about are ideas and plans for the future, as opposed to work problems and frustrations. Part of the fun in starting Life and Whim was the opportunity to be creative for ourselves instead of just for our clients. We’ve had so much fun working on the blog together and exploring all the great spots in TC, so things never get dull and there is always something fresh to talk about. Whether it be for clients or for Life and Whim, we have fun doing it together.

What is the hardest part of working with your spouse?:

Another tough one – there’s just so much to say!

I’m Type A and Jay is Type B. It sounds like a perfect balance, and it normally is, but sometimes his yin (not seeing the urgency to get something done) conflicts with my yang, and drives me a bit crazy. But I’m sure as I’m writing this he’s saying the same about my type A personality!

What did you learn about your spouse while working with him that you didn’t know before?:

Two things come to mind. First, I love to collaborate, and talk ideas and processes through. I like to do this in order to arrive at the best solution to a challenge. Jay does not. He prefers to brainstorm on his own and then tell me about his “great ideas”!

Secondly, I didn’t realize what a creative thinker Jay was until we started working together. In many ways, I think he is far more creative than I am. He has the ability to really see way outside the scope of things and is great at connecting the dots and seeing future trends. I tend to have a more zoomed in approach which is beneficial when it comes to details and projects, but I really enjoy hearing his perspective and ideas. He comes up with things I would never think of!

Alright, Jay here to finish up. Honestly, I’m not sure if that last part by Heather was sincere or sarcastic. I’m pretty sure that the scare quotes around “great ideas” and exclamation point were sarcastic (in a loving way OF COURSE), but then she came back with something sweet and complimentary at the end. That’s kind of how we operate. There are certain ingredients that work for us – mostly sweet with a bit of sour. When you’re around each other as much as we are, you have to mix things up a bit to keep life interesting.

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