The Art (And Science) Of Sharing An Office

saoTHE VIEW FROM JIM AND MICHELE FOY’S HOME office is bucolic. Located in Highland Park, Ill., one of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, their house is tucked well away from the street in a thick grove of trees. Baskets of bright pink fuchsia sway in the breeze just a few feet from the couple’s small conference area. And their workspace features a huge picture window overlooking a glen of bushes and ferns.

It’s a peaceful scene these days. But 19 years ago when the Foys started Dynamic Alternatives Inc., a home-based business that advises small companies on strategy, information systems, marketing, and management issues, it was no bed of fuchsia trying to share their professional space as well as their personal lives. For the first four years, the pair were office mates who couldn’t see eye to eye, literally–their desks were positioned at right angles to one another, so each stared at a different section of the wall. Here’s how they made the transition from “yours” and “mine” to “ours.”

His Side Michele’s habit of thinking out loud drove Jim berserk. He’d jump at any offhand comment–and there were plenty, from casual questions about whether he’d called a client to emotional harangues directed against her computer. Jolted away from a peaceful train of thought, Jim would respond with a barely civil, “Bug off!”

As the technical half of the pair, Jim interpreted Michele’s outbursts as thinly veiled requests for him to rescue her from the uncooperative technology. And being a logical sort, he figured that sending her to software school would circumvent the problems. Jim frequently pointed out sections of software manuals describing obscure functions that he found fascinating and assumed Michele would too. “My biggest habit was my `I know better’ attitude,” Jim confesses.

Finally, the pair had an economical but impractical “share and share alike” policy when it came to office supplies–meaning either could rummage in the other’s desk drawers for scissors Or Rolodex cards, then leave them wherever they landed.

Her Side Jim’s technical support approach was altogether too logical for Michele, who just wanted to vent her frustration and then find a quick fix to get back on track. And Jim’s habit of poking around to tidy up her PC’s hard disk and install new programs left her feeling as if he’d rearranged her bedroom drawers without permission.

asaoTime management was another source of friction. According to Michele, Jim is an “early to bed, early to rise” type who often takes time off for an afternoon nap or a walk in the woods. Her day, by contrast, starts late and ends in the wee hours of the morning.

“It bothered me a lot,” sighs Michele. “We have deadlines, there’s work to do, and here he’s sleeping in the middle of the day!” The sight of her partner stretched out in his living room recliner, an open novel on his lap, would make Michele’s blood boil.

The Same Side Sharing an office with anyone can be distracting, but “it’s especially difficult working with spouses because you’re so sensitive to their voices,” says Chris Conley, director of Design Research Associates Inc., a Chicago-based office design firm. Conley should know: He works with his wife and can identify her voice immediately through any din.

Partners who just can’t resist conversing may need to erect a physical barrier, he says. Fabric-covered panels or screens, positioned to minimize eye contact, can help partners stay focused on their own work, not on what the other is doing–or not doing. Sound-dampening quilts and rugs hung on walls soften the reverberations from phone calls, too.

Workers who find a partner’s loud phone voice, laugh, or habit of singing along with the radio particularly intrusive should use headphones or earplugs, Conley suggests.

Eventually, the Foys realized that they were undermining each other’s productivity by verbally sparring. Now, when Michele needs to interrupt Jim, she simply says, “When you have a minute, I have a question”; at Jim’s terse “uh-huh,” she makes a note of her question and keeps on working.

As for Jim, he learned that he could fiddle with his own computer’s insides as much as he wanted, but needed to respect Michele’s arrangement of files and folders. Nowadays, he doesn’t try to “help” Michele squeeze every bit of productivity from her software, and she asks him to step in only if she can’t fix a glitch. Office supply squabbles were smoothed out when the Foys stationed tape, paper clips, and staplers at each desk.

Finally, the couple decided to take in a matinee movie together each week. Incorporating some diversion into the flow of her workday has helped Michele respect Jim’s mull-it-over-quietly workstyle. “When you’re thinking about projects all the time, there’s no nonproductive time,” she says.

Best of all, now that the Foys have faced up to their workstyle differences, they can happily face each other–and they’ve pushed their desks together to prove it.

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