In this unprecedented time, it’s natural for you and your employer to focus on the dramatic changes to the way you do work, your clients’ scenarios, and perhaps even your business. But you and your employer should also pay close attention to the changes at home affecting your spouse, partner, and/or other household companions and their less obvious impact.
You know that working remotely rather than visiting the office each day will affect your productivity and overall experience of work. And if you have children and are taking on some of their care or schooling, you recognize the implications for your workday.
What is less obvious is that your partner homeschooling for the first time or losing a job also affects your performance at work in a significant way. Your partner’s ability to manage their share of the household and themselves determines how much time, energy, and attention you’re able to devote to work. The added responsibility of teaching fourth-grade math or the emotional burden of losing a job reduces your partner’s contributions to your shared life, increasing what is required of you at home and decreasing what you can offer at work. This sounds obvious, and it is when you hear it or think about it, but few people and even fewer employers remember to account for its impact.
How Your Partner’s Situation Affects Your Job Performance
Research out of Washington University of St. Louis confirms the link between what is happening in your partners’ life and your job performance. By reviewing data on thousands of Australian households, the researchers found that people with partners ranking high on the personality trait conscientiousness make more money, get promoted more, and are more satisfied with their jobs.
An article in Harvard Business Review describes the findings of this research this way:
“To put the income finding in dollar terms, with every 1-standard-deviation increase in a spouse’s conscientiousness, an individual is likely to earn approximately $4,000 more per year… And one way to frame the promotion finding is that employees with extremely conscientious spouses (two standard deviations above the mean) are 50% more likely to get promoted than those with extremely unconscientious spouses (two standard deviations below the mean).”
How do conscientious people improve their partners’ job performance? The researchers identified three ways:
- Conscientious partners handle a lot of household tasks
- Conscientious partners make people feel more satisfied in their relationship
- People tend to emulate the conscientious behavior of the partners
The first explanation is most relevant here. It suggests that the better your partner is able to manage your shared life, the better you are able to perform at work. As a result, if external events change your partners’ ability to manage your shared life, your job performance is likely to be affected.
The same is true for your partners’ emotional and mental health condition. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that unemployed spouses dragged down the mood of their employed partners, ultimately affecting their job performance. Maw-Der Foo, the lead researcher, explains what psychology calls “crossover effects” this way:
“One of the key findings in this study is that couples are better at sharing their burden than helping alleviate it. If you feel bad at home, there is going to be spillover at work where you will also feel lousy.”
This effect isn’t limited to your partner or spouse either. Anyone in your personal life or household that regularly contributes to or influences the management of your life and household can have this same effect, including children, aging parents, and roommates.
The people close to you, your coworkers, or your clients can experience these types of changes at any point, but they are especially common now. However, changes at home don’t have to pull down your performance at work if you proactively address them.
How Individuals Can Reduce the Impact of Changes at Home
If you’re facing an increase in household management duties, your first job is to embrace the increased responsibility. Failing to match your investment in your personal life to the rising demand may work temporarily, but it will eventually lead to challenges that demand even more of your time, energy, and resources. Intentionally increase your availability to your partner and/or other housemates so they feel they can pull on you more in this time.
In addition to providing practical support, plan to offer emotional support too. Emotional support will likely be necessary even if your partner hasn’t lost a job or experienced some other kind of loss. Change generally increases stress, causing your partner or other housemates to seek additional emotional support to cope with the added pressure.
If you don’t already, you may want to start using an online to-do list app to manage your household tasks. Post-it notes and your memory may have worked up to this point, but as you get busier, the productivity systems that used to work often fail. Using a to-do list will ensure tasks don’t fall through the cracks and free your mind up to focus on doing your tasks rather than remembering them. The added benefit of digital task lists is that you and your partner can access the same list separately and assign tasks to each other.
In addition to keeping track of your personal tasks, it’s helpful to schedule time on your calendar to complete them. This practice, known as time blocking, significantly increases the likelihood that you’ll complete a task and reduces the time you spend figuring out what to do next throughout the day. By scheduling work and personal tasks, you can also ensure that you’re allocating your time between work and life in the way you want.
As you think about your schedule, look for opportunities to take advantage of the newfound flexibility that generally comes with remote work by aligning your schedule more with your personal demands. For example, you may find that your partner needs a break from homeschooling from twelve to two each day in order to make it through the day with his/her sanity intact. Or you may find that you can spend the early morning hours working and then finish your workday earlier because you don’t have to take your kids to school. Think creatively about how best to design your calendar and avoid letting the patterns of the past limit what you do now.
How Companies and Managers Can Help Employees Cope with Changes at Home
Companies too should begin by acknowledging that their people are affected by what is happening at home even if many of their people aren’t taking care of children. It’s helpful to talk to employees about their home situation and ensure that they feel seen in their new situation.
Employers should also anticipate that some employees’ hours may go down. One research study found that people put in more time at work when their intimate relationships are going well, making the inverse true as well. As life at home becomes more demanding, you can expect some employees will need to spend more time there. One of our coaching clients explained it this way:
Before COVID-19, I had flexibility around when I got home. I would try to be home by six, but if I wasn’t, I could just ask the nanny or my partner to watch the kids. Now that’s not possible. We’re staying with my in-laws and they’re watching the kids and they need us to be back to relieve them by six. I also can’t really work after the kids go to bed like I used to because we’re staying in my in-laws’ house and we’re usually with them in the evening.
While employees may need to work less, this doesn’t mean they need to accomplish less. By making simple changes to their professional routines, they can increase their output while decreasing their hours as Microsoft Japan employees did last summer. The free Zarvana Time-Finder Diagnostic can help you identify opportunities for productivity increases.
Employers and team leaders can also support their people by encouraging and modeling flexibility afforded by remote work. To encourage flexibility, leaders must avoid creating a “virtual facetime culture” that pressures remote workers to be constantly online and available. Instead, focus on the output or impact of their work.
There is a good chance many of your people are facing similar challenges in this time. You can help ward off social isolation and increase support for employees by creating structures your people can use to connect around personal, rather than work, topics that are affecting many of them.
It’s normal to try to take changes at home in stride with the false notion that it will not affect your job performance. Unfortunately, this is rarely possible. Rather than hope you or your team won’t experience any effect, be proactive about increasing your management of personal tasks and adjusting your work schedule to better suit your current situation.