No good can come from marital co-working


It is not only MPs who should be banned from working with their spouses, everyone else should be too

LAST WEEK in Westminster, MPs were told to engage in wife-swapping. The committee looking into their inflated expenses ruled that they could no longer employ their spouses, but said it would be fine if they employed each other’s wives instead.

While I can’t see how the taxpayer will gain from these wife swaps, it is nevertheless a great improvement on the current arrangement.

To allow husbands and wives to co-work as well as co-habit has always struck me as a bad idea financially, socially, practically and emotionally. It is not only MPs who should be banned from doing it - everyone else should be, too.

But in spite of this, the workplace is stuffed with married couples who work side by side. I used to be half of one myself.

There are high-profile examples in every type of occupation.

In politics, there is Hillary Clinton and Bill; in philanthropy, there is Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. And in the specialised field of management gurudom, there is Jack Welch and Suzy - who share a bed as well as a syndicated advice column.

The fact that so many husbands and wives are cooped up together professionally and domestically stems from two different market failures.

One is a failure in the dating market. Many people (such as Bill and Melinda) meet their partners in the office – partly because they work such long hours they never go anywhere else, and partly because people can seem more alluring being powerful at work than when being purposeless at play.

The other is a failure in the job market: spouses decide to work together out of laziness or lack of imagination or desperation, or all three. Out of the resulting round-the-clock proximity no good can come.

The first rule of portfolio management is diversification. If two people work for the same employer, both are at risk when it founders.

Equally, if the marriage starts to founder, then the job of one or other side will start to be at risk, too.

Another problem is that working with your spouse can make you a narrower person. When you work with strangers you can have two personas: your office self can be quite different from your home one. If, however, your spouse is witness to your office persona, you either have to tone it down or carry on under their coolly appraising eye.

The presence of a spouse can also impede the forming of the most satisfactory of workplace relationships, the office spouse. The OS is one’s chosen partner for a sandwich at lunch, and a gossip at any time at all.

A real spouse, unless unusually secure, may not look kindly on their platonic office equivalent.

Working with your husband or wife is also bad for conversation. It is all too tempting to say as one brushes one’s teeth: “Did you see that memo from X?”

If you don’t share an office, you have no choice but to talk about something proper instead.

Marital co-working has the apparent advantage that you see more of each other. But if your paths otherwise barely cross, the answer isn’t to work in the same place but to work less so that you can see each other more.

There are some couples who are so addicted to each other’s company that they even go to the supermarket together, and for them co-working might seem an ideal arrangement.

Alas it is less ideal for everyone else who has to put up with being a permanent gooseberry.

In all, I can only think of two good things about working with a spouse, and neither advantage survives closer inspection.

The first is that you can share a lift to work. I seem to remember doing this with my husband, but I also seem to remember a good deal of argy bargy. I was always ready to leave on time and he never was.

The second is that you can make sure that your other half is not getting up to mischief. But even this does not always work.

The European human resources director at Aviva found himself quite unable to keep track of his wife, who worked with him.

Last month, it was revealed that she had been having a secret affair with Andrew Moss, the chief executive.

Result: the married couple are no longer co-working, because she has resigned, and no longer co-habiting - she has left her husband in favour of the chief executive. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009