How Are Couples Handling Hybrid Work?

Couples are employing creative strategies to negotiate the demands of working from home, according to researchers.

Hybrid work, where people spend time in the office and time working from home, has moved from an emerging trend to the preferred option in this post-pandemic world. But how are New Zealand couples navigating working from home, together?

University of Auckland researcher Dr Joanne Mutter and Associate Professor Kaye Thorn (Massey) investigated the experiences of professional couples who work from home and in the office.

Dr Mutter, a lecturer in management and international business, says one aspect of her motivation for the study was an interest in determining strategies to make working from home more manageable for couples.

“Flexible working has so many benefits, but it can also create this work/life conflict and people can end up having no separation between the two.”

“We looked into the different tactics working couples use to make their hybrid work situations suit them.”

When it comes to managing working at home with your significant other, Mutter says it’s valuable to determine whether your partner is an ‘integrator’ or a ‘separator.’

“We found that people tend to fall into two categories – you are either the person who is happy to integrate everything, so you’ll be answering emails at night and then going to the supermarket during the day.

“Or you will be a person who likes to keep life and work very separate. You’ll like starting work at a certain time in the morning, finishing at a certain time, and switching off from checking emails or doing anything else work related outside of your specific work hours.”

“It helps to understand what your partner is because, for example, one woman who was very much a segregator said in her interview, ‘He goes back to work at nights, so I may as well too.’ But this isn’t healthy from a work/life balance, wellbeing, or life satisfaction perspective, and they needed to talk about how to better manage the situation.”

Dr Joanne Mutter
Dr Joanne Mutter, lecturer in management and international business, University of Auckland

The researchers also found that some couples were taking extreme actions, such as moving house, because they realised the importance of having separate spaces.

“They wanted working from home together to be sustainable, so moving house was considered appropriate for some.”

Other couples repurposed spare bedrooms and garages or renovated to ensure their space was suitable for hybrid working.

For people who don’t have a dedicated office, new rites of passage are particularly important, says Mutter.

“Activities such as leaving the home office in the garage, walking around the block and entering the house served as that ‘circuit breaker’ that was once the commute.”

Turning off from work was another issue the couples found themselves managing, according to the study.

Mutter says some people would write themselves a list of tasks for the next day. Others, when they were making dinner, would have an ‘end-of-workday’ catch-up.

“People need to harness these kinds of strategies, or else they won’t turn off. You might think, ‘oh, I’ve got all this flexibility, so it’s good for my work-life balance, therefore it must be good for my wellbeing’. But if work-life flexibility means that someone is constantly thinking about work, then it’s having the opposite effect.”

Mutter and Thorn, who undertook in-depth interviews with 32 people (16 couples), also found that in some circumstances, if one person had more flexibility in their role, they tended to pick up more family and household responsibilities and, therefore, ended up with less flexibility.

Organisations can support employees’ flexibility by making sure their culture is open to diverse work styles, says Mutter.

“Some organisations say ‘right, no emails after hours’, and they think that’s good for everyone because they’re allowing you the right to disconnect. But for some people, that doesn’t work because they want to answer emails at a certain time, although they don’t expect a reply.

“If you want to segregate, you need to know that your organisation culturally accepts that and that your boss isn’t going to send you an email and expect a reply at 7pm.”

Dr Joanne Mutter and Associate Professor Kaye Thorn’s research saw them awarded “Best Paper Aligned to the Conference Theme – Common Good Human Resources Management” at the 5th Human Resources International Conference.

/University of Auckland Public Release. View in full here.