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Being effective while working at home means controlling distractions, such as a spouse.
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updated 5/30/2012 8:08:40 AM ET 2012-05-30T12:08:40

Earlier this month "Hitched" received a letter from a wife who works from home and asked for our help. After 31 years of marriage, she is struggling with her husband’s lack of respect for her workspace. He also began working from home and moved his computer into her office and now regularly interrupts her. The wife feels smothered and disrespected, and now she daydreams about getting her own apartment.

Rather than reply to just her with tips, I thought I’d share the information with all of you. While I have a lot of work-from-home experience, I gave a call to Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in etiquette training for corporations, universities and individuals

Define your workspace
Having a space of your own is extremely important, even if one of you has to work from the kitchen table. If possible, set up shop in two separate rooms on opposite sides of your home. Being in a separate space will help avoid distractions from your spouse, which can be as simple as their phone ringing throughout the day. If quarters are tight, Gottsman advises against butting two desks up against each other where you and your spouse are face to face, especially if you are doing your own projects for two different companies. The distractions it will likely cause will outweigh the benefits of the space saved.

If you don’t have a space large enough to accommodate both of you, establishing office hours may provide a fix.

Create office hours
If you only have one room that can work comfortably as a home office, Gottsman says you might trade use of that room by creating work hours. For example, one might exclusively get the room from 8:00 to 1:00 and the other from 1:00 to 5:00. Gottsman says to negotiate the times that you truly need to be focused.

The second aspect of creating office hours is to let your spouse (and the rest of your family) know when you are not to be disturbed. You and your spouse can sync calendars on your smartphones to get on the same page. If you have kids, Gottsman suggests creating a physical calendar that they can see and placing it somewhere in a communal space.

Third, you have to establish a time to shut things down. “We all have to create an end-time for our workday, whether that’s 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock,” says Gottsman. “At some point we have to turn it off, close the laptop, walk away from the computer, silence our cell phone and spend time with each other.”

Communication
Dialogue with each other is paramount. “You have to be able to talk to each other and really be honest without becoming defensive,” says Gottsman. Have a conversation where you explain what you need, when you need it and how these ground rules need to be followed going forward. “It’s so important to be on the same page without becoming offended when your spouse can’t spend time with you,” says Gottsman.

If you would like to take advantage of being under the same roof during the day, Gottsman doesn’t think it would be outlandish to make appointments. For example, “You could say, ‘I know it’s a busy day for you, can we schedule a time later on where we can talk about how we’re going to get the kids to camp and who’s going to take Suzy to the soccer game,’” suggest Gottsman. You might not blatantly request an “appointment,” but establishing specific times to take a break from work will keep you both focused and in the loop.

Dealing with distractions
This might be the biggest hurdle for most people working from home. “We’ve gotten into the habit of being distracted,” says Gottsman. “We now have to get into the habit of focusing on getting what we need to get done, taking our breaks, and at a certain point shutting down and being present with our spouse and with our friends.” This means you need to avoid pulling out the smartphone and taking a peak at Twitter, and likewise close the Facebook window.

When your husband or wife is just a few steps away, you need to respect each other’s space. You shouldn’t have to get off the phone to answer a question from our spouse, nor should they write you notes while you’re trying to conduct business. This gets back to communication, but you might try saying something along the lines of, “I love you, I love you being here with me, but I’m easily distracted so could you help me out?” recommends Gottsman. So rather than scold your spouse for distracting you, you’ve flipped it and asked them for help.

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Dealing with the family
Your boundaries should be very, very clear. “We want to feel like what we’re doing is of value and that our spouse also values us,” says Gottsman. “It may not seem as important, but if we’re doing it, it is important.” Your family needs to know they cannot walk in to your office and interrupt. When Gottsman absolutely cannot be disturbed and needs the rest of the house quiet while she takes an important call, she’ll put a sign on her door informing her family. Gottsman says you should have a conversation with your family that they are not to start the vacuum cleaner or blend a smoothie when they know you need a quiet backdrop.

Moreover, inform family members that you find it distracting if they stand next to you, breathing down your neck while you’re trying to get work done. It can be difficult with kids during the summer time when they’re home and need assistance, but establishing regular breaks when they know you’re available, and getting older siblings and your spouse to chip in will provide a big relief.

Of course, each household has their own schedules and specific needs. These are just a few guidelines for husbands and wives to follow when their office shares the same address.

“When you’re married, you have to look at all of these factors and figure out what works best for you, what works best under your own roof,” says Gottsman.

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