I was asked a little while back if I had any advice on how to make living with colleagues go well. I’ve lived with many friends and colleagues over the last 10 years, including people I work directly with, people who essentially managed me, and my direct reports. I feel I’ve learned quite a bit over the years, so thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned along the way.
Living with colleagues is not for everyone, but I’ve gotten a huge amount out of it: I’ve enjoyed living with people I’m close to, formed closer relationships with people and enjoyed being able to talk about work that hugely interests me with others who are similarly passionate. I do think there’s work involved in making this go well - living with colleagues raises the stakes on household and work relationships. This post is just a description of some of the work involved in it. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the pitfalls of living with colleagues and how to avoid them, and it’s not intended to encourage those who are skeptical about this choice to push ahead through discomfort.
Quite a bit of the below essentially comes down to best practices for interacting with housemates in general, though some of it is only relevant to living with colleagues. I think the highest stakes relationship to have with a housemate is to be their manager, so this will be particularly relevant to people in that situation. That’s the case where you have the strongest duty of care and need to take some responsibility for the person feeling comfortable and happy in their home rather than feeling under pressure due to always being with their manager. If you’re not sure you’re able to navigate this well, it’s possible that the right answer is to not live with your manager or your direct reports.
Some of this will also be affected by what housing relationship you’re in. I’ve aimed to write the below to be applicable to any situation including for example co-leasing together. But if you are in the position of being the home owner or lead tenant who is sub-letting then you are more likely taking on the responsibility for making sure this goes well.
Deciding whether to do it
Living and working together is pretty intense. It makes it hard to take a break from each other, and it inevitably blurs your personal and professional personas (for example, it makes it more likely your colleague will be hearing about your family dramas, and will see you cry or get angry).
So you likely want to have a reasonably high bar for living and working with the same people. My impression is that standard business advice tends to advise against living with people you work with. (Though it depends a bit on life stage and sector: it seems to be more common for people in graduate schemes and for startup founders to live together.) There are good reasons for that, so it’s important to think carefully about whether to enter situations like this, and be ready to put in additional effort and consideration to make sure they go well.
In particular, it’s considered best practice to avoid living with people you manage. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that it can be hard to avoid (at least the appearance of) favouritism towards your housemates compared to your other reports. Another is that it may be extremely hard to deal with managing a housemate who is not performing well, especially as their performance becomes bad enough to consider needing to let them go.
Being effective altruists can also make a difference to colleagues living together.
- On the one hand, it means that we have values and often reasoning styles in common, which makes things easier.
- On the other hand, it can make things more stressful.
- One reason for that is that EAs often work hard and care a lot about their work, which makes it all the more important that other parts of their life don’t require much thought or work.
- Another is that there are many different areas of life in which people can work hard to help others, and different people care about (or feel able to) optimising in different areas - whether saving money, saving time, recycling or avoiding animal products.
Before moving in
Figure out whether you’re a fit
There are a lot of things that make a difference to how well people live together that you won’t necessarily know about from working together, so you might want to have an explicit conversation about each of your preferences around:
- How much you want to socialise - both with each other and inviting others over
- Your style of resolving disagreements: do you want to talk things through thoroughly? Resolve things concisely via text?
- How much and when you each work: does one of you work at weekends and the other need full space away from work, including not wanting to be in common spaces with people who are working?
- Moral behaviours: does one of you find it hard to see others eat animal products and the other eat meat? Does one of you want to save time at all cost and the other think recycling should be non-negotiable?
- Noise - between what times do you each expect the house to be quiet? Does one of you play an instrument, and where will they do that?
If you’re moving in with a colleague or friend and their partner will also be moving in, don’t forget to talk to them, or at least hear about their preferences too.
Try to anticipate problems in advance
It might be useful to think through what problems you expect to face in advance. In particular, what stressors might come up? For example - think about how easy it would be for one of you to move out without too long a lead time if living together wasn’t working out.
Other situations I have faced which made things harder than they would otherwise be include: having a small child, experiencing a miscarriage, and a global pandemic. These kinds of things mean there’s less slack in the system. During those times I was lucky enough to live with people who were really easy going about, for example, how tidy the house was. Had that not been the case I can imagine things could have gotten really stressful because I had little bandwidth to do more housework.
One thing to bear in mind is that deciding to go back to living apart should be kept as a perfectly reasonable option, not a last resort. Two people can be well suited as friends and colleagues, without being well suited as housemates. Or they can be well suited as housemates at some times but not others. Ideally you would both feel as if you could decide to cease living together without that feeling like it diminishes your friendship or working relationship. For example, one of my colleagues and I decided to stop living together after a few months of doing so for a number of reasons including wanting more work/life separation and different tidiness standards. That felt sad, but didn’t end up impacting our relationship over the longer run at all. (Obviously, financially all this can be easier said than done.)
Agree to work norms
You might want to explicitly agree to norms when you first move in together about when you’ll discuss work in the house, or even when and where in the house you’ll do work. Some norms that have worked for me in different situations:
- Never discuss work in the house. This worked well for me with someone with whom I had an uneasy working relationship, and allowed us to live together very happily despite that. It meant we literally avoided questions like ‘how was your day?’ when we got home from work.
- Only discuss work in one specific room of the house. In that case, if one of us wanted to initiate a work conversation in the house we had to suggest physically changing locations. That put a naturally high bar to doing so, and reminded each of us to keep separation between work and relaxation.
- Talk about work whenever. This has been the norm I’ve had most often, but I’ve tried to always proactively suggest other norms and check that all parties are genuinely happy with talking about work whenever.
Of course, there are plenty of other norms you could imagine, such as talking about work at home only between certain times, or only talking about particular types of work projects. You might also want to discuss other types of norms around work, such as where (and at what times) it’s fine to work. I’m a big fan of covering these topics explicitly in advance rather than one of you feeling increasingly awkward but not knowing how to bring it up.
These norms are extra important to set in advance if there are power relations involved. For example, you’re likely to feel less comfortable bringing up to your manager that you’d prefer not to see them working in the living room on a Sunday morning than they would a random housemate. Yet, probably it’s actually even more stressful to see your manager working in a common space on a Sunday than another housemate. If you’re the manager in the relationship, you should likely take responsibility for making sure that the norms you’re setting up are ones your direct is happy with, and making sure they don’t feel they ought to say eg that they’re happy to talk about work whenever.
It could be worth setting up more systems for making things like housework minimally contentious if you all have to work together as well as live together. For example, for a while our house had a points system where we tallied up amount of housework in time increments, so that everyone was on the same page about who was doing more and less than their fair share of housework. This got more comfortable when we got a fortnightly cleaner, because no-one had to do as much housework and the house never got too bad.
Once you’ve moved in
Once you’ve moved in, you might want to periodically check in about the norms you agreed when you first moved in. It’s likely worth proactively checking in at some time when everyone is feeling good and comfortable with each other, to make sure everyone continues to feel at ease. I’ve typically tried to start off with stricter norms (like only talk about work in a particular room) and then relax them when it turns out we all live and work comfortably together, because it’s less socially awkward for the norms to get looser rather than stricter.
Even if your explicit house norm is that you can talk about work whenever, if you live with someone you directly manage, you might want to think about how to avoid causing unnecessary pressure on your colleagues. For example:
- You might avoid asking questions that could be interpreted as ‘how is your work going?’, which could even include questions like ‘how was your day?’.
- You likely should avoid discussing worries you have about work which could be interpreted as being down to a housemate’s work not going as you/they wanted
- You might consider not working too much in common areas at weekends / late at night. Note that I’m not advocating lying or even misleading people here. But there’s a big difference between knowing in the abstract that your colleague works on a Saturday and getting a bunch of work messages from on Saturday. There’s an even bigger difference between knowing it in theory and them sitting next to you working while you’re trying to relax.
Of course, for all these things, it really depends on the dispositions of your housemates. I find it stressful to have people around me working when I’m not because I feel guilty. My husband, at the opposite extreme, positively likes it because it makes him feel fortunate he gets to have time off.
In the workplace
If you’re in a direct management relationship, it seems worth the junior person having a ‘mentor’ at work. Preferably they would be at a similar level to the manager, but not on the same team. They would meet periodically to check in and ensure that if things were strained that was picked up on quickly and could be figured out as sensitively as possible.
Living together of course makes it even more important than usual that your working relationship is collaborative. Neither of you can switch off from it, so it’s worth investing extra time and energy making sure that even if a project is hard, you each know you care about each other as people. Of course, this is much easier said than done.
It could be worth thinking about contingencies for if your relationship comes under strain. For example, it could make it easier to know that you could switch up who manages who if your household relationship is struggling. Or it could be worth taking a bit of time off work to maintain the bandwidth to work things out swiftly and amicably.
On the other end of things, you probably get on better with your housemates than with most other people, including your other colleagues. You might want to pay explicit attention to whether you’re preferentially discussing projects with or giving responsibilities to a housemate in cases where that doesn’t make sense from a purely work perspective. That seems particularly important when a new person joins the team: It’s hard enough joining a group who already know and trust each other based on working together, let alone if they spend their non-work time together too.
A couple of benefits
This has overall been a rather negative post, about things that could go wrong. So I wanted to finish with a couple of the unexpected benefits I’ve been lucky enough to get from living with colleagues:
- A colleague and I, who had a somewhat uneasy working relationship, turned out to be extremely compatible housemates and through that lifelong friends.
- When I had a stillbirth, a housemate colleague ensured everyone at work was told sensitively so that I didn’t need to think about who I needed to inform of what and how to do that.
- Short term collaborators who I got to know much better through living together for a summer. That led to finding it easier to work together on later projects.
Thanks for comments from Habiba Islam and Brenton Mayer. Also to the many kind, fun people I’ve gotten to live with over the years.