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Tech couples confront the awkward close quarters of working from home

From hiding under desks to avoid Zoom cameras to getting annoyed by their spouses, the work from home mandate is getting intense, fast.

A person working at a computer

As tech companies require employees to work from home, workers face feelings of loneliness and discomfort in their daily surroundings.

Photo: JGalione via Getty Images

Last Wednesday, executives at Amperity, a customer data management startup, sent an email strongly encouraging its 175 or so employees to go home, a move that came as King County, Washington, announced new cases of patients infected with coronavirus. For Rebecca Scully, a director of product marketing at the company, it meant facing a new reality: Could she effectively perform her job from home?

Five days in, Scully is finding the answer is "yes," but accomplishing some basic tasks from her four-bedroom Seattle home instead of the office is more difficult. Now the mother of two is constantly comparing work schedules with her husband, an Apple employee also working remotely, and haggling for time in their home office. They have an understanding: Who gets the office depends on the urgency of and privacy needed for their meetings. Scully's two children, ages 9 and 6, also get in the way of work — quite literally. At least two dozen work calls have gone haywire over the last week because one of her kids barged into the office or crawled under her chair and kicked the seat in a fit.


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Those new challenges, and the fact she's no longer going to a workplace every day, leaves the extroverted Scully feeling disconnected from her colleagues and at times, overwhelmed. "I anticipate this trailing off of energy and motivation and the need for an infusion of adult energy," Scully said. "I'm looking out in the next couple of weeks, and if this persists, I think I'm going to have to get more creative."

While many crow about the benefits of working remotely — a flexible schedule, saving money on gas and food — the reality is far more complex and nuanced for Scully and other tech workers long accustomed to working in offices and mingling with colleagues face-to-face every day. Sure, remote work has its virtues, but it also comes with distinct disadvantages that come from an isolating environment and close quarters, several tech workers told Protocol.

Just several days into their new working conditions, tech workers face feelings of loneliness and discomfort in their daily surroundings, and awkward interactions and rising tensions with their partners.

Another tech worker, a startup co-founder who lives in San Francisco, has worked from home for years; her husband, however, was notified by his employer on Sunday that all employees must work remotely for an indefinite period of time. Although the couple resides in a 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home in San Francisco, their small home office, already filled with two computers and three displays, makes working alongside one another sometimes feel crowded and difficult. Living and working together, as they also stockpile food and supplies amid all the coronavirus chatter, makes her feel "trapped" in their house.

"Now my husband is sharing that same space trying to have his own meetings, so I can hear his meetings and he can hear mine," said the co-founder, who preferred to stay anonymous for privacy reasons. "With the constant Amazon deliveries — 'Armageddon water,' toilet paper, canned soups — the dog walker showing up, and the weekly house cleaners showing up, he says he cannot think. … To me, it's just like working in an office right next to someone. It makes me think we need a bigger house!"

The startup co-founder's teammates, accustomed to working from an office in San Francisco and now working from home as well, are also feeling uncomfortable with their new working conditions.

"There is a lower productivity that I've noticed in my colleagues," she explained. "They seem really freaked out working from home. One person said in a team Zoom meeting today, 'I am all alone … with myself.'"

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Amy Brown, who works on social media and brand marketing for the San Francisco-based design software startup Figma, has been working from her one-bedroom in Berkeley ever since Figma requested earlier this week that employees work remotely. On the one hand, Brown is able to sleep an extra hour because she no longer has to commute to work. On the other, she and her husband, who is between jobs and starts a new position on Monday, have found they must get creative in staying out of each other's way in their small apartment. Case in point: Her husband has "army-crawled" through the dining room to stay out of frame of Brown's Zoom video calls.

"I think we're doing a pretty good job, so far, but I do think there is sort of an element that's missing, of getting to come home at the end of the day and, like, tell them [your partner] how your day went, and now it's like, 'Oh, well, you know how my day went, you were here for all of it," Brown said.

Ryan Wenger, a business analyst for the travel startup Fairytrail in San Francisco, has run up against similar challenges with his partner, who is attending Golden Gate University for her master's degree, ever since Fairytrail encouraged employees to work from home nearly three weeks ago. The couple shares a 1,000-square-foot three-bedroom with a roommate. For Wenger, getting some "alone time" means shutting out the world — and his partner — by donning a pair of headphones.

"Being near each other at all times can get annoying, and you lose special moments," Wenger said. "Because if you're both at work all day doing things, then you come home hungry, you can say, 'Oh, I missed you.' But you're just … always together. It's hard to appreciate your time together. … There's nothing to talk about, and then you're just getting in the way of each other."
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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

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