Win the battle of the home office

With everyone hunkering down during this pandemic, here are tips for couples on managing conflicts and expectations to ensure a harmonious time at home

Author and Insead associate professor of organisational behaviour Jennifer Petriglieri (above) has launched a free Web series to help couples manage expectations as they work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Author and Insead associate professor of organisational behaviour Jennifer Petriglieri (above) has launched a free Web series to help couples manage expectations as they work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTOS: INSEAD, ISTOCKPHOTO

Now that the whole family is staying home, have you and your spouse had the Battle of the Home Office or the Clash of the Chores?

British academic Jennifer Petriglieri, 43, is here to help couples traverse the fault lines in their closest relationships as millions around the world hunker down to weather the coronavirus.

"Space - who gets to work where - is a big source of tension because what that often means is having uninterrupted time.

"If you're in the home office with the door closed, you tend not to get interrupted. If you're working on the kitchen table, that's not comfortable," says Dr Petriglieri on a video call with The Sunday Times from France, where she is based.

The associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, has been in her own circuit breaker mode with her husband and two children for four weeks.

She has launched a free Web series to help couples, with or without children, through the pandemic. It is called Couples That Work @ Home: The Survival Series.

In the ongoing series, she applies research and principles from her book, Couples That Work: How To Thrive In Love And At Work, which was published last October.

She offers The Sunday Times some tips on how couples can have "deliberate conversations" that will help their careers and families thrive under lockdown.


There are ways to manage your concerns by talking about them, whether they are practical - Am I going to be left with all the housework? - or more existential, such as unanswerable questions like when the Covid-19 crisis will end.

Dr Petriglieri says: "What we find in the research is that simply sharing those worries takes the burden off."

Even if you do not know what your long-term financial prospects are, both of you can talk about the financial planning you can do and whether you need to prioritise the career of the person with the more stable job.

"If we start from the view of 'Why don't you do your share?', your partner is likely to be defensive," she says.

"But if you go into a conversation saying, 'I'm concerned about how this is going to impact my career and increase my stress levels', our partner is likely to be empathetic because he or she cares about us. We're activating that empathy in our partner."


There is no point in clinging on to the way things once were.

"The biggest trap people are falling into is to try to recreate their world from two, three months ago, without thinking how that has changed and how they are going to adapt," she says.

The reality is that many couples are now working full-time at home, as well as being full-time homeschooling parents, chefs and housekeepers, she says. Five more lunches may have to be cooked at home now, for instance.

"Think about what's important and drop the rest. Because in this situation, we need to reprioritise.... We have to iterate or feel our way into a routine, as opposed to sitting down one night and drawing it up and that's it."

When they started staying home, she and her husband, fellow Insead academic Gianpiero Petriglieri, were working till 1am "to keep everything going".

"At the end of the first week, we were exhausted. It took time to realise we could not do that."

They also "gave themselves permission" to figure out their new priorities at work, such as by picking essential projects to focus on.


"Having boundaries is important because they manage our stress," she says.

Knowing that no one is going to come through the door of the home office in the mornings, while she gets on with her work, takes some of the stress off.

Discuss where and when each person works and how to divide up tasks in the household. But beware of "colour-coded routines" that do not allow flexibility, she says.

This might be the flexibility to take that important conference call at the last minute or to prioritise your partner's work for two weeks before his big project is due - you may need the same leeway at another time.

Cut out stress by questioning the urge to have a home that is as neat as a pin or whether the children need to keep up their piano practice as much as before.


Ask yourself if you need to catch up with so many people, says Dr Petriglieri, who admits that she attended three virtual birthday parties last week.

A more relaxed approach is also important for children whose world has been turned upside-down, she says. They need downtime to video-call their friends, which normally you may not allow.

"What surprised me with our kids, who are 10 and 11, is that they have stepped it up at home. They're changing the beds; they can use the washing machine," she says. "We and many other parents underestimate how much our children want to help and how capable they are at doing things around the house.

"It's important for children to have the sense that they are part of the solution."


One thing some couples are doing well is to regularly check in with their family to see if the new routines are working, she says.

Round the table in the evening, everyone gets two minutes to say how the day has gone and if the family needs to change anything the next day, she suggests.

You may wish to be more mindful about carving out personal time - whether it is to meditate or read a book - which tends to be sacrificed in pandemic survival mode, resulting in built-up tensions.

Be gentle. "We're aiming for good enough here, not perfect," she says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline Win the battle of the home office. Subscribe