Talent   //   January 15, 2021

‘Let’s survive a pandemic together’: Roommates are struggling with realities of sharing space 24/7

Escaping urban areas was a common lifestyle choice for many city dwellers at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March. It was done in an attempt to outrun the virus, as well as to give themselves more space in a new remote working world, trading cityscapes for the suburbs.

Initially, these plans were seen as two- to three-week long excursions, but for many, these trips home turned into months-long stays with their families.

“I was feeling claustrophobic in the city and went upstate for two weeks. That turned into five months,” said Austen Radcliff, who does corporate communications at Comscore.

But reality has sunk in that life must go on while still accounting for coronavirus lockdowns and safety protocols. People are moving back in with roommates and it’s forcing them to continue rewriting the rules for what living with someone truly means during a pandemic.

Many roommates are reshaping conversations, upending their living habits and enforcing house rules around coronavirus, according to 11 urbanites in shared living spaces who spoke to Digiday.

Once her three roommates left New York for five months, Sarah Hamilton, an office manager at professional advisory and education consultancy LRN, made her own rules for their Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment. Working alone in the four-bedroom apartment felt like a luxury. “I thrived living alone. I liked having my own space especially in such an anxious time,” Hamilton recalls now.

But in August, her roommates started returning one by one and suddenly the classic New York City apartment that was built with the appeal of proximity over function began feeling a bit cramped.

“It was recalibrating how we were going to live together in a space and in an environment that we had never done before,” said Hamilton.

By October, the friend group in the apartment fell into a new routine, but with their lease ending in April, they’re now debating whether they should look for a new place that has more space for remote working or leave the city all together.

“With the new year, especially, we’ve been doing the same thing for a while and New York City is not really serving us right now. Do we stay in New York and hope that our 20s will be the fun we thought it would be or do we go and try to save money?” said Hamilton. “Everyone feels that indecision.”

One university lecturer and writer living in Brooklyn, who asked to remain anonymous, is dealing with a similar change to her living situation after her third roommate moved out of the apartment in October. The remaining roommate, whose name is on the lease, decided that she wanted to only have two people living in the three-bedroom apartment to accommodate for the realities of remote working.

In the months since transitioning to a remote working situation, there has been a lot of negotiating about sharing a workspace, including trading off who gets to work in the living room each day and who uses the vacant third bedroom.

“There is a certain self consciousness of doing this work within earshot of one other person,” she said.

But by not adding a third roommate back into the apartment, the university lecturer said that she can no longer afford to live in the apartment and is now in the process of trying to find either her own apartment or a place with a larger bedroom to accommodate the workspace she needs.

Turning an apartment into an office

Sabina Wex, who runs her own PR agency from her apartment in downtown Toronto, said that she and her roommate, who also works in public relations, created a pseudo office by setting up two desks in their living room. “It’s been really great,” she said, adding that they can easily turn to each other and ask work-related questions throughout the day.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed having a coworker,” Wex said.

In true New York-style, however, a desk is a luxury few can afford.

Radcliff said that in her two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, she is currently using the top of her dresser in her bedroom as a desk while using a dining room chair as a seat. Meanwhile, her roommate works from the living room.

The home created by the pandemic in March or August might not continue to work for roommates in January, said Angela Simpson, an HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). And for many people living in this situation, she said to think of the home as an office during work hours.

“You’re used to doing whatever you want in your own personal space, so it’s more a matter of getting into the mindset that you’re conscious of being courteous to the other [roommates],” said Simpson. “Like coworkers in an office, “think, ‘would I be doing this if I had a coworker sitting right next to me?’”

Being on the same Covid-page

When Farah Mohammed first moved to Scotland in September, she and her four roommates were under a strict two-week quarantine period where no one was allowed in or out of the apartment. The five former strangers who were from all over the world, ultimately bonded in that time, she said, and they used the period to discuss their Covid-safety rules for the apartment.

“We had no choice. We got very good at communicating,” said Mohammed, a customer experience manager & digital storyteller at Spatial DNA Informatics, who is also studying at The University of Edinburgh.

But even in a country that has implemented several national-scale lockdowns and restrictions on person-to-person interactions, they had to continuously discuss whether certain events warranted visitors to the flat.

One of her roommates in particular wanted to invite guests over for the Hindu holiday Diwali that took place in November. “It triggered a big discussion in the flat,” said Mohammed. “It was a difficult thing to bring up because emotions are touched on both sides of the conversation.”

Sarah Bergman, a library assistant living in Boston moved out of her apartment a month before her lease was up in August, largely due to the fact that two of her three roommates spent a great deal of time traveling to surrounding states for weekend trips — something she was uncomfortable with.

“My dad was sick so I was trying hard to stay Covid-safe and I wasn’t living with people who agreed with me on that,” Bergman said.

In her (ultimately successful) quest to find a new living situation, Bergman said that she was focused primarily on finding roommates who had comparable views on coronavirus-safety and would follow specific rules.

Miles Howard, a freelance journalist also based in Boston, said he left his apartment with two other roommates after Thanksgiving to stay at a smaller apartment in New Hampshire for a couple weeks after he disagreed with his roommates on how long they should require a roommate to self quarantine after they traveled by plane for the holidays.

“I decided to extricate myself,” said Howard, over fear of rising Covid rates. He said he plans on continuing to stay in the New Hampshire apartment — an additional rent fee on top of the rent for his Boston apartment — on and off through the winter.

Howard added that the pandemic has made him realize that while living with roommates made sense financially, roommate relationships can be “superficial” and regulating what happens in your shared home is difficult.

“It’s not like when I moved in it was like, ‘let’s survive a pandemic together,’” said the university lecturer. “We’ve been thrown into these unexpectedly intimate situations. It feels almost like a platonic partnership.”