UK: Sleeping partners.

UK: Sleeping partners. - Relationships that succeed at home rarely transfer to the workplace, but there are a growing number of couples who work and live together. How do they manage it?

by Jim Davies.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Relationships that succeed at home rarely transfer to the workplace, but there are a growing number of couples who work and live together. How do they manage it?

'I think I'll drive to work today, Mrs Jones,' says the lantern-jawed executive, throwing off his crisp white bedsheet. Then, leaving his perfectly tousled wife to doze in bed, he sweeps purposefully out of his gravel drive. After an exhilarating drive through country roads, he reaches an unaccountably deserted new town where the architects had a weakness for mirrored glass.

In less than 30 beautifully art-directed seconds, he arrives at his destination.

The front gates look strangely familiar. He opens his office door to reveal an elegant colleague, sporting efficient spectacles and hair in a bun.

'Good morning, Mr Jones,' says his wife.

This, of course, is a ludicrous advertising idyll brought to you courtesy of Nissan. The glamorous husband-and-wife business team harmoniously living and working in a spruced-up country house that could have come straight out of Wallpaper magazine, their personal and professional commitments dovetailing neatly to form the most perfectly rounded existence. All this and they're still flirting outrageously with each other.

Most couples need a tad more space. For many in long-term relationships, office hours represent a welcome break from their partners, a chance to function as independent entities and to assert their individuality.

In the course of researching this article, a fax outlining its premise inadvertently found its way to a scientific research company. The woman who phoned to let me know its whereabouts didn't hold back: 'If I had to work with my husband,' she said, 'there's no doubt I'd take a meat cleaver to him.'

So clearly it wouldn't work for everyone but, as the trend towards self-employment increases, it would seem that - meat cleaver or no meat cleaver - more and more couples are taking the plunge and going into business together. 'Over the past five years, more than a quarter of all the people we've advised after redundancy have been interested in the idea of self-employment,' says Frances Cook, managing director of Sanders and Sidney, a leading outplacement and career management consultancy.

'Some 14% or 15% of these people go ahead and start their own businesses and, in many cases, demand some form of practical support from their partners.'

Her major piece of advice for couples considering this option is to ensure their skills are compatible. 'It's the same advice I'd give anyone going into business together,' she says. 'Your skills base should be different but complementary and you should respect what the other person contributes, otherwise there will be conflict.'

Although there are several high-profile exceptions, it generally tends to be men who initiate such ventures, persuading their partners to join them once the business is up and running. Former chartered accountant Tony de Rivaz is a typical example. He took voluntary redundancy in 1995 and set about designing an electronic building block set for children.

Logiblocs were launched at Harrods Toy Kingdom in November 1996 and, after selling into more than 2,500 primary schools in the UK, are also proving a rip-roaring success with children in France and the US. 'I thought it was a bit of a madcap scheme at first,' his wife Ros admits. 'But I quickly realised that Tony needed assistance.'

Logistically, it made sense. With the youngest of their four children nearing school age, Ros felt the urge to get back to work, but picking up where she had left off in the wine trade would have meant a daily commute into London from St Albans. 'We'd have been paying such a lot out on travel and childcare that it would have defeated the object,' she says. 'Working from home with Tony offers me far more flexibility.' On a day-to-day basis, Ros takes responsibility for customer service, as well as dealing with the Logibloc Club and company public relations. Tony, meanwhile, co-ordinates a team of designers, manages supplies and 'keeps the overall vision of the company alive'.

Trust, of course, is a major plus point in partnerships of this kind.

'I tend to find it difficult to delegate but I know we're both in it for the greater good of the family, which makes it easier,' Tony says. 'Our relationship has always been rock solid,' Ros adds. 'If anything, we're even more on the same wavelength now... we have to be.'

Wives helping out in this manner is hardly a new phenomenon. After all, there is a long tradition of tradesmen's partners doing the books and chasing up the invoices while their husbands are out on site. Small retail concerns, such as corner shops, greengrocers, ironmongers and so on, also tend to be family-run concerns. The catering and hotel trade is another sector where, because of the long hours and the nature of the work, you find a relative abundance of working couples.

What is different about today's partnerships is the diversity of areas in which they operate. A recent venture capital report cited husband-and-wife teams working in an unexpected variety of sectors, including cinema management, music production, and magazine publishing.

'Partners tend to be involved mainly in trade or service-oriented activities,' Cook says. 'Retail is a prime area and then you get the more arty side of things, such as interior and garden design. Consultancy work is more centred on the skills of an individual, so you're less likely to find couples involved there.' Design of all persuasions is certainly well-populated with couples. In fashion, prominent names include the Emmanuels, Paul Smith and Pauline Denyer as well as more recent arrivals such as Clements Ribeiro. Frances Newell and John Sorrell of Interbrand Newell & Sorrell are leading lights in the graphics and corporate identity world.

In a creative context, partners can function as a valuable sounding board for ideas and know which buttons need pushing when inspiration is lacking. 'Having different mentalities is what makes a partnership work,' says Richard Smith, who runs Area, a north London-based design company, with Cara Gallardo, his partner of 10 years' standing. 'One person provides what the other can't at a particular moment.'

Area's clients include the V&A, Virgin Records, Habitat, Thames & Hudson, Beck's Bier and Haagen-Dazs but, admits Smith, sharing work time and play time with the same person is by no means plain sailing. 'Sometimes we're at each other's throats,' he says. 'The business we're in can be difficult financially and is always very demanding. Everyone seems to have an opinion about design.'

Perhaps significantly, Smith and Gallardo have begun to find their own personal space within the company umbrella. When they first set up the business in 1989, more often than not they worked side by side on particular projects. Nowadays they will each take responsibility for specific clients and may even team up with other designers: 'We're still the two people behind the company,' Smith explains, 'but previously we were the company.'

Helen Langridge and Mike Wells, who manage the 10-strong commercials production company HLA, go to even greater lengths to maintain a sense of distance during working hours: they have their own offices on different floors of the building. 'We're lucky enough to have the space to be more or less separated during the day,' Langridge says. 'Plus, my job means I'm out and about selling the company, so we don't actually see each other that much during the day.'

It's a quite different story for Tony and Ros de Rivaz, whose home has become a permanent depository for boxes of Logiblocs. 'Two of the children share a bedroom,' says Ros, 'and even that has filing cabinets in it. It was difficult at first but you just get used to it after a while.' Although all the couples interviewed were aware of the pitfalls of allowing work to spill over into personal time, none had actually laid down any formal ground rules to avoid it.

Anton Rush and Jane Applebee, partners in the PR consultancy Rush Applebee and partners outside work, claim they rarely switch off, but have simply become accustomed to this state of affairs. 'It's like being a doctor on call,' says Applebee. 'You could be watching Dad's Army and suddenly come up with a great idea for Mowlem or the BBC (both Rush Applebee clients).

You then spend 30 minutes discussing it.' 'We've even been known to talk about work in the middle of the night,' adds Rush. 'I'd estimate it invades 80% of our conversation.'

Being effectively married to their work doesn't seem to bother this couple, although they do voice concerns about the effect their relationship might have on their employees: 'It's important not to wear your relationship on your sleeve in the office and not to be seen as a little clique. It can be a bit sick-making, reminiscent of matching sweaters,' says Applebee. 'You've got to be careful not to become a sort of soap opera for the staff,' adds Rush.

These provisos aside, Rush and Applebee claim to be more than happy with their arrangement. 'Just look at the alternative,' Applebee argues, 'you come home and excitedly tell your partner what you did during the day. He emerges from his evening paper, says "yes dear" and then falls asleep.'


- Before embarking on a working relationship with your partner, it might be worth seeking professional careers advice, perhaps even taking a psychometric test to assess your compatibility.

- Make sure your roles are clearly defined from the outset and that you are managing your skills base effectively. Ensure that your job descriptions are complementary rather than overlapping.

- Respect what your partner brings to the business. Try to be polite, appreciative and supportive, even if you do know that they are wearing a ridiculous pair of underpants.

- Agree your boundaries. Make sure 'work time' and 'home time' are clearly defined, and stick to them.

- If you work from home, try to keep filing cabinets, computers and bulldog-clips as far from the bedroom as possible.

- Cultivate friends and interests that are totally removed from your work. They will help you to keep your career in perspective.

- Take time out at least every couple of weeks to do something totally unrelated to work. Go out for a meal or to the cinema. And don't talk about you know what...

- Find some time for yourself. Even the most devoted couples need a rest from each other once in a while.


Helen Langridge, a producer, founded the Soho-based commercials production company Helen Langridge Associates in 1987. It was set up principally to promote and represent the much-vaunted commercials and music video director Gerard de Thame.

De Thame has since departed but the company has steadily expanded and now has a roster of 10 directors and 10 permanent staff. Over the years, Langridge has built up a reputation within the advertising industry for being able to spot and snap up emerging talent.

In 1993, while she was on maternity leave, her partner, Mike Wells, stepped in to run the company in her absence. He ended up becoming a permanent fixture. Wells, who studied law at university, had previously worked as a music video producer and first assistant director and so was already familiar with the ins and outs of film production and drawing up contracts.

'I remember being very nervous (about Wells taking the reins),' Langridge says. 'As it turned out, he was far better at the figures and understanding the business than I ever was. My strengths are more on the sales and chat side - we're just very lucky that our skills happened to complement each other's.

'We didn't see a lot of the potential tensions before we went into the situation,' Wells admits. 'It was quite a dent to my ego because Helen's name was on the door and was well-known in the business. People were asking who I was. I realised that Helen is HLA's greatest asset and it would be silly to compromise that.'.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?

6 rules for leading a remote team

Our C-suite panel share their distilled wisdom.