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How to Co-Work in a Small Apartment

According to an etiquette expert, all you need is a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T. — and honesty, and consideration

One of the extreme new realities of life under quarantine is the idea of (semi-)permanently working from home. For some of us, that transition’s been an easy one: Wake up, get dressed (maybe), work in the peace and comfort of a makeshift (or if you’re lucky, a real) home office — rinse and repeat.

But for others, working from home means coming to terms with one relatively massive elephant in the room — co-working in a small space with someone else. Whether we’re talking about a significant other or a roommate, everyone needs to do their job, but when you share a one-bedroom apartment or, in the case of a roommate, a tiny living room, it can feel like you’re right on top of one another. 

So what can you do?

“It’s important for those who are dwelling together to really apply one of three core values of etiquette that I tend to stress, which are ‘respect,’ ‘honesty’ and ‘consideration,’” says lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann. “The thing is to communicate and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lot of work. How do you want to work this out? Do I go in the room? Do you go here? What do we do?’ Just talk respectfully, be honest and figure out what that is.”

It can be easy to want to default to tiptoeing around who gets to work where or passive aggressively making your roommate or significant other aware that you don’t like how things are working between the two of you, but in this instance, that’s the worst thing you can do. “Communication is so key, and manipulative suggestions, innuendos or blanket statements don’t work,” Swann explains. “You have to be very, very direct and ask for what you need. If you don’t know how to work it out, then tell your roommate that you’d like to figure something out. A lot of time, people think that etiquette has to do with avoiding the truth at all costs, in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or having conflict. But that’s not true. Etiquette dictates that you be forward, honest and that you’re direct but respectful all at the same time.”

That rule applies to all sorts of work habits, too. For example, maybe you like to listen to music while you work and your SO or roommate doesn’t. Or maybe they prefer to have the TV on in the background all day to make them feel like they’re in the hustle and bustle of an office, and for you, it’s a distraction. The key, then, is communication and consideration. “If you like to work with the music on, maybe it would be more considerate to use headphones or keep it to a dull roar as opposed to listening at a high volume,” Swann advises. “And if you like having the TV on, consider watching on your phone with your earphones in, so you still get that background noise but you’re not bothering the other person.”

Inevitably, of course, there will be times when you butt heads regardless of how respectful, honest and considerate you might be. In those cases, Swann recommends picking your battles: “If you come to an impasse and both of you want the same thing, really think about it and ask yourself, is this a battle that I really need to choose right now? Sometimes you may have to shift somewhat so that you can have peace in your life. And if you’re willing to shift ever so slightly in order to keep the peace, my recommendation is to do so.”

It certainly beats the alternative — breaking up or moving out.