Commentary: The surprising things you learn working from home with your other half
Consider the circuit breaker a rare opportunity to spend much needed quality time with your significant other - but only if you figure out how to not (mentally) throttle each other first, says Karen Tee.
SINGAPORE: It’s been over a month since my partner, who normally works full-time in a nice office in Singapore’s central business district, has started working from home.
His company began trialling WFH arrangements early on in the coronavirus pandemic and so I’ve had the pleasure of his companionship practically 24/7 for a while now, something which has barely happened in our decade together, unless we are on vacation.
In the absence of a daily commute, jam-packed social life and other work-related commitments, we’ve found ourselves with way too much quality time imposed on each other.
To make the best of this situation, we exercise together almost daily, whip up our favourite meals, drink good wine and indulge in the quiet pleasures of stay-home hobbies like reading and catching up on Netflix series.
Yes, I recognise that we have it fairly easy. We have a safe and comfortable home to live in and do not have children, so we are free from juggling home based learning activities.
We are also lucky our immediate family members are independent and in good health so we do not need to handle caregiving responsibilities.
Still, life as a couple during a circuit breaker is not always a bed of roses. There is the daily anxiety that comes from keeping track of the latest coronavirus developments as well as the stresses of work.
As a freelancer in this unstable situation, I am constantly fretting about when I will get my next paycheque while he has to deal with the pressure of maintaining a high level of productivity even as the global economy slows down.
Plus, spending this much time in such close proximity without a break from each other has made us more short-fused with seemingly trivial arguments dragging on for extended lengths of time.
Still, being mostly confined to four walls has also thrown up some interesting observations about couplehood, some funny and others bittersweet. Here’s four things I’ve learnt so far.
1. MY PARTNER IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PERSON AT WORK
This conundrum will probably sound familiar to many. I think I am a fairly scintillating conversationalist, but sadly, it appears my other half doesn’t always agree.
I am convinced that whenever he mutters an “mmm-hmmm” in response to whatever I am saying, it is because he has already zoned out. Insert exasperated sigh.
Well, that space cadet magically disappears when he shifts into work mode. During the first couple weeks of WFH, we sat next to each other in our study room.
That was when I noticed how frequently he “hops” on voice and video calls with colleagues and clients. Even more enlightening to me was the intensity of his concentration while they talked - he even takes careful notes.
So, where does this incredible razor sharp attention span go after office hours? He’s thinking about solutions to work conundrums, he tells me. Well bosses, please give this MVP a promotion pronto!
2. I CAN’T WORK WITH HIM
Working in each other’s company started out fun. For instance, we could share snacks and take breaks together. But sadly, I soon realised the cons of being work buddies greatly outweighed the pros.
I can only get into a flow state with background music playing, while he needs complete silence. I prefer working with the windows thrown wide open for natural ventilation, while he likes sub-zero air conditioning.
And whenever he has a call, my journalist - some call it busybody - instincts cause my attention to stray, even when I have no idea what technicalities are being discussed.
For the sake of my productivity, I eventually moved my work station out to the dining table. Now, it almost feels like the good old non-coronavirus days when we spent most of our working hours apart.
I have even resorted to messaging him on WhatsApp to keep up the illusion of being in different spaces.
And while I enjoy having lunch together daily, I confess that I do sort of miss the mindless, conversation-less indulgence of my other regular mealtime companion, Netflix. Sorry, partner.
3. MY INNER NEAT FREAK FLAG IS FLYING HIGH
As an unapologetic shopaholic and maximalist who is loathe to throw anything away, I am happiest surrounded by some clutter and disorder. This has always been a small source of conflict as he tends to prefer a minimalist aesthetic.
But the pandemic has transformed me into a hand-washing and object-sanitising germaphobe and suddenly the tables have turned. No surface is too insignificant to escape the disinfectant and nothing can be tidied up and cleaned too promptly.
Now, he has become the messy one while I am the nag on his case for not bringing a used cup to the sink or for leaving a stray piece of laundry on the bathroom floor.
He is even on a roster for a variety of household chores, since home cleaning agencies have ceased services during this circuit breaker. To his credit and good sense, he has valiantly undertaken most of these tasks with minimal complaint.
I hope that when this is over, both of us will continue to treat our living space with more mindfulness because better hygiene can never hurt right?
4. WE CAN ALWAYS EXERCISE MORE EMPATHY FOR THE OTHER
This virus, imperceptible to the human eye, has thrown our most minor fault lines right into the open. Since the circuit breaker began, we have been snapping at each other over the littlest things.
For instance, he thinks I am on the wrong side of paranoid for using a piece of scrap paper to press the lift buttons while I can barely keep my anxiety at bay each time he goes out for a run (currently one of the outdoor activities still permitted) in case he unknowingly crosses paths with a COVID-19 carrier.
Things came to a head this past weekend when we began arguing over our dog’s daily walk.
He thought it was reasonable to leave our apartment at 10pm but even masked up, I felt uncomfortable passing by about five people walking back from the supermarket, three joggers and another dog walker.
When I said I felt the neighborhood was still too busy at this hour, he gave me an incredulous rejoinder: “I thought it was practically deserted!”
That was our Eureka moment. Up until then, I don’t think either of us have noticed just how differently the other can sometimes interpret the exact same situation.
Truth be told, reality was somewhere in between what both of us perceived - it certainly was not crowded by any standard but neither was it a ghost town.
It also reminded us that as long as we are in general agreement about the big, important matters (like doing our best to maintain social distancing), many conflicts (such as the exact hour to walk our dog), can be alleviated by viewing the situation from the other’s perspective.
For an opinionated duo like we are, that revelation was a timely reminder that we both need to take a step back to maintain harmony, particularly in these uncertain, worrisome times.
At least, that’s what I am telling myself now that he has embarked on a mini-project to grow out his stubble. I hate it, but if it brings him some joy, I guess I can put up with this cosmetic change for the time being.
Of course, that’s not going to stop me from making fun of his hirsute experiment, until he shaves it off.
Karen Tee is a freelance writer.