How to work from home when you have roommates, according to experts

As we work together to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19), self-isolating and social distancing has become our new realities, including, for many of us, working remotely from home. While this option might sound like a dream come true—no more hectic commutes! Emails replacing meetings!—if you happen to live with roommates, then conducting business from home can often be tricky. For instance, how do you hold private business calls? And how do you keep from becoming easily distracted? How do you remain respectful of your cohabitants while also getting work done? 

Working from home when you don’t live alone does have its fair set of challenges, but it’s not totally impossible to be productive, as long as you’re able to communicate your boundaries and work as if it’s any other day at the office. We spoke with a panel of experts to get tips on how to best work from home when your living quarters are a little bit cramped, whether you share your space with friends, a partner, or your parents.

How to work from home when you have roommates

1Develop a sense of structure.

Take it from me: It’s super easy to become distracted when you’re working from home, especially if it’s for the first time. When I started out freelancing seven years ago, I was easily tempted by Netflix and daily walks that soon turned into hours-long escapes.  I quickly realized that if I wanted to become successful at freelancing, I would need to establish a routine, stat. Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast, says setting up structure is key when working from home. 

“Wake up at your usual time and go to bed at your usual time to maintain a good sleep schedule, which matters both in staying healthy and mentally healthy,” she tells HelloGiggles. “Set up a work space separate from others’ work space, much like the cubicle you probably normally work in, whether that’s working at a desk or a kitchen table. Don’t work on your bed. Keep your bed for sleeping.”

While Dr. Saltz says it’s crucial to try to coordinate your working time with those in your home, she does recommend organizing social time with your roommates, too. “Come together to talk, to vent, to play,” she advises. “It’s still important to connect and to feel togetherness. Have meals together, watch a show in the evening together. Recognize this is temporary and try to be patient with one another. Everyone is anxious and that makes for shorter fuses, so try to be empathic.”

2Think of your home as your office.

According to Celeste Headlee, communication expert and author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, when you are working from home, it’s best to treat your home as if it’s a real office.  

“You behave differently in the office than you do at home, and you should assume the same is true of your roommate,” she tells HelloGiggles. “So, if you wouldn’t have a loud phone conversation at work, don’t do it at home. If you wouldn’t lean over your co-worker to grab an item on their desk, don’t do that to your roommate, either.”

Most importantly, Headlee says, is to keep the lines of communication open and honest. “Have a chat with each other, acknowledge that this might be difficult, and invite them to let you know if you’re doing something that prevents them from working. Also, assure them that you will do the same, in a respectful and non-hostile way.” 

Basically, from the hours of 9-5, treat your roommate(s) as co-workers and vice versa. Stay out of each other’s way, respect your boundaries, and communicate ASAP when something isn’t working for either of you. 

3Dress the part.

“Nothing gets you into work mode more than dressing the part,” Tonya Dalton, productivity expert and founder of inkWELL Press Productivity Co., tells HelloGiggles. “That means don’t start your day in your pajamas, sending emails in bed under your covers. You don’t have to wear a formal suit or anything like that, but getting dressed sets the tone for your day.”

Not only does getting ready for work help you feel more professional, Dalton says, “but it clues family members and roommates in to the fact that they too should take your work hours seriously, even if you’re working from home.”

4Remain flexible. 

After working remotely from home for the last five years with roommates, Nikki Bettinelli, a social marketing consultant at NB Media, has learned a lot from her experience. One key takeaway: The ability to adjust to anything. “You have to be flexible. If I needed silence or had important work to do or have after hours work, I would typically move to my room and work from bed,” Bettinelli tells HelloGiggles. “Also, knowing of other spaces in your building or home is also important. Occasionally, I would move to the board room or party room in my condo if my roommates were home and we didn’t want to disturb each other.” 

5Keep a sense of humor.

“Two people in the same space are often polar opposites,” Darla DeMorrow, a certified professional organizer and author of The Upbeat, Organized Home Office, tells HelloGiggles. “Neat and messy spouses, laid back and high-strung roommates—we all bring something to the table.”

When working at home with others, she adds, communication is key. “None of us is perfect, and being proactive about making other people comfortable can go a long way to a good relationship in tight quarters,” says DeMorrow. “Don’t wait until tempers are short to ask for consideration.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, HelloGiggles is committed to providing accurate and helpful coverage to our readers. As such, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, we encourage you to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments, and visit our coronavirus hub.