Every day, there are posts on my local therapist listserve offering or looking for office-shares and sublets. It makes sense. Offices are expensive. Many mental health providers who work in agencies supplement their incomes or begin private practices by doing private work a day or an evening or two a week to start. Sharing space and expenses: How hard can it be? It’s harder than you may think.

When it’s easy, it’s easy. You and your officemate share decorating ideas, standards for cleanliness and respect for each other’s materials. But disasters do happen. Among stories from my colleagues:

  • The sublettor who never paid his share of the rent on time.
  • The officemate who was always late tying up a session so the next person was late starting a session with a waiting patient.
  • The six hour per week renter who used the office parking space so he could shop – when it was not his time in the office.
  • The officemate who kept using up (and not replacing) the coffee and office supplies.

And so on. The list of complaints from those who have shared an office is long – but many were preventable.

If you are thinking about subletting hours or days in your office, make sure that everyone who uses the office has the same understanding about the arrangement before signing an agreement. Many problems can be avoided if you have clear conversations about the following issues.

1) Read your lease. Your lease is a legal document. Some landlords don’t care if you sublet space. But some really do care – and will penalize you if you do it without permission. Make sure you understand whether you have a right to “sell” hours or days.

2) Be clear about who has decision making power: Are you sharing the office as equals or are people renting time in your office? If you are equals, you all have say in what the place looks like and how it is maintained. But if you are “renting” hours or days to others, you will probably want the renters to agree to maintain the space as you have set it up and to bring their own supplies. Any arrangement can work but be clear about it.

3) Setting up new space: One of my colleagues was upset when, after entering a new 50/50 office-share, she found that her officemate had set up the office before she arrived. Her officemate believed that the one who got there first had first pick on where to put her things, what pictures should go on the wall and where supplies would be kept. My colleague was left with choosing to confront (uncomfortable) or go along with (even more uncomfortable) the officemate’s decisions. If sharing a space as equals, you will start on the right foot if you have a meeting to make mutual decisions about what goes where before you move in.

4) Records: There is often limited space in a shared office. It may be tempting to share one locked multi-drawer file cabinet for client records. But doing so means that your sublettors have access to your clients’ confidential information. Better that they should have their own cabinet or that they take their records with them.

5) Standards for cleanliness. The Odd Couple ( a play about roommates who have opposite ideas about cleanliness), is funny to watch but it isn’t funny to live. You can’t take it for granted that everyone sees the same things as needing attention. Is everyone expected to empty trash baskets before they leave for the day? How often and by whom are children’s toys washed and sanitized? If you have a coffee service, what is the expectation for how it is kept clean and neat? Should furniture be returned to a particular arrangement if one of the therapists changes it for his or her sessions? Should the waiting room be generally straightened up by the last person in the office each day? By each clinician? Talk about it ahead of signing an agreement.

6) Office supplies: To run in a business-like manner, offices need supplies. An anxious client can be made more so if kept waiting while the therapist rummages around for a pencil. Make sure that all parties understand who will purchase supplies and the rules for replacement.

 7) Coffee? Some therapists want to be able to offer their clients tea, coffee, or bottled water. Others believe that doing so is counterproductive. How will you handle it if you and your officemates are not on the same page? Will those who offer drinks have to hide the supplies before they leave? Will they have to carry in water bottles and a thermos of tea every time they use the office? Is there a way to compromise?

8) Parking lot rules: People who timeshare sometimes forget that the parking situation is part of the deal. Make sure that everyone understands and agrees to the limitations on parking spaces. If you live in the snow-belt, make sure you all also understand who is responsible for shoveling out your spaces.

 9) Money matters: Be specific about when all those who are subletting need to get their rent to you so the rent can be paid on time. You shouldn’t have to chase others to collect their share or to front their share of the rent until they get around to paying you.

 10) Write it all down: It may feel obsessive. It may feel unnecessary, especially if you are sharing with someone you’ve known for awhile. But taking the time to write down your agreement will help you all crystallize what you’ve agreed to. Formalizing the relationship with a written contract (sublet agreement) gives you a document to reference if people forget to honor the terms of the share.