LaVonia and Arthur Linder have navigated life together in Washington, D.C., for 51 years — raising three children, juggling two careers (he as a high school principal for D.C. Public Schools, she as a paralegal for the D.C. Board of Elections) and volunteering.
Even in retirement, during which Arthur, 75, had maintained a regular commute to his unpaid role as head of religious education at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the Linders never felt cramped in their three-story home. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“All of a sudden, he was in my space, and I didn’t like it so much,” says LaVonia, 74. Arthur frequently has Zoom calls for his volunteer work that require him to take over LaVonia’s quiet, sunny study on the second floor. He carries canvas bags full of files and notes — “a bag for each project,” he says — from room to room.
Like many couples these days, whose real spouses have also morphed into “work spouses,” the Linders were forced to figure out how to get their jobs done (and, yes, unpaid volunteering gigs are jobs) without undoing decades of marital bliss. It takes work to work well with your partner: There’s no IT department, no supply manager and no human resources pro to settle turf battles. Interior designers and couples therapists alike say they’re seeing a surge in business from people seeking help managing space, time and energy under the same roof.
“The likelihood that a husband and wife can sit in a room all day together is pretty low,” says Dawn Merkel of Merkel Interiors in Rye, New York, where she has steered seven home-office remodels virtually since April.
The Linders, with the help of D.C. interior designer Shawna Underwood, are turning a guest bedroom into a shared office, big enough for workstations for both LaVonia and Arthur. They remade LaVonia’s smaller study into a reading room for the both of them — and a place where she can retreat when Arthur is on a conference call in the main office. LaVonia agreed to new paint (a calming shade of gray) in the office, and they’re shopping for desks and office chairs.
“You don’t have to go buy a traditional office desk,” says Underwood, founder of Shawna Underwood Interior Design. “You’re not designing a corporate space, so fill it with functional items that also feel like your home: … a vintage farm table, an antique writing desk, a modern standing desk.”
The Linders feel rejuvenated by the process. “We’re lifetime learners, so this is an opportunity to learn something new together and adapt,” Arthur says.
LaVonia says that “this is going to bring us closer. It will help us communicate better and help each other out a little more.”
As people spend more time at home during the pandemic and rethink how to make their space work for their new lifestyles, many homeowners in the United States are doing home-improvement projects.
“So many of the couples I work with are also doing renovations or remodels,” says Chris Kraft, a couples therapist and the director of clinical services at the Sex and Gender Clinic in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It really is all about boundaries. [The pandemic] is forcing people to reconfigure and renegotiate their living spaces.”
Karen Osterle, a couples therapist in D.C., shares the story of a fellow therapist’s wife’s “operatic voice” floating beyond the dining room, where she works running a nonprofit, and into the upstairs office, where he now virtually sees patients. To cut down on the sound traveling, they’ve turned the dining-room workspace into a lush, plant-filled place. They laid sound-absorbing rugs on the floor. They rescued an old velour curtain from storage and stapled it to the ceiling, creating an almost-soundproof nook. For the couple’s two cats, they put a heating pad on the edge of the coffee table. “It’s gorgeous, and it works because no one thinks they’re in the ‘bad’ space or just floating around the house, looking for a place to work,” Osterle says.
But before you call in the interior designers or invest any sweat or money into rearranging and outfitting an office for two, first see if you can get any work done with your partner (and their Zoomed-in co-workers) sharing the space, says Kristin Try, an interior designer with Kristin Try Art and Interiors in Alexandria, Virginia.
“You don’t want to spend $15,000, have built-ins put in and then realize you can’t make this work,” she says. Pay attention to how your office mate organizes — or doesn’t organize — supplies, and how you feel about those assorted piles.
If you choose to share one home office, think zones. “Split the room in half with a low credenza if you need to. Create two zones, so each person can personalize that space to their needs,” Underwood says. That means separate desks, separate storage and separate task lighting. Dedicate one work surface as a shared one, for family items that each partner can access or for plants and other design elements you agree on. Decide if you want to face one another or if that’s distracting, and talk about who gets the coveted window.
Invest in good headphones if you don’t like the sound of others typing, chewing and drinking, and don’t eavesdrop on your partner’s calls, Kraft says. One upshot of seeing just how busy your partner is — or hearing how much office jargon that person has to wade through — is that it can spark empathy, Osterle says. “If you know your partner has been in five back-to-back endless meetings, you can maybe take out the dog or give him or her some space to decompress from all that,” she says.
With double the items in your office, get serious about storage, Merkel says. She prefers built-ins to keep all those files, printers and paper clips out of sight.
A few years ago, she remodeled an office for Vivian and Josh Greenblatt in Larchmont, New York. She installed a wood desktop that spanned the length of a wall, so the two could work side by side, with filing drawers and lamps separating them. Between their workstations, there’s a box they use to exchange documents (school forms, taxes, etc). They have a large built-in hutch that’s full of office and school supplies. Now that Josh is working full time at home as a lawyer, that remodel is paying dividends. Although they trade off who’s in the office, their supplies stay in one place.
Homebuilder Michael Sauri says to “watch out for your loud talkers and your spreaders,” because those particular home-office inhabitants tend to need their own dedicated space. “You don’t want to be annoyed by the way your spouse gets their job done, so better to work in separate areas,” he says. He has set up his own workspace at the clutter-free, neatly organized dining-room table in his Arlington, Va., home.
“My beloved wife is, well, a two-armed octopus, and tends to surround herself with piles and stacks, knowing that everything she needs, everything, is within reach,” he says. “That’s why she gets the office, because I need, well, something different.”
Different, not better or worse, Osterle emphasizes. “This is new for all of us, and it’s not easy for any of us,” she says. So be sure you talk about more than just the content of your frustrations (the desk being in the kitchen, the teetering towers of file folders and the Post-it-note origami). Also discuss the feelings behind those, “so you can come up with some solutions — together.”
Those solutions, say interior designers and therapists, all share a common trait: clear boundaries. When you’re sharing everything all day, your workspace should feel like it’s all yours. And your workdays should have clear endings that partners talk about in advance and then work to enforce.
Yes, there will be long days and time-sucking projects, Osterle says, but that’s why you lift your head from the laptop and acknowledge the chaos, so no one feels as if they’re managing it alone. Have a daily and weekly huddle to map out conference calls, kid pickups, distance-learning assistance and who needs privacy when. That way, you won’t feel as if you’ve been kicked out of your comfort zone at the last minute. This is also the time to plan time off from work, to coordinate schedules for a day trip and to schedule time to safely check in with family and friends to keep your support network strong, both Kraft and Osterle say. Vacations still need to happen during the pandemic.
“There are two people in a couple, and each of them are getting pulled in all kinds of directions, so be on one another’s side. Be on the side of the relationship,” Osterle says. “Say to your partner, ‘Look, I know we haven’t connected in a while. I know we’re living in Crazy Town these days, but I am going to use sick leave on Thursday.’ And then use it.”