In an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, tons of us are now working from home. For many, this is a fun novelty – allowing us to create new routines and enjoy more time with loved ones. But if you have kids, it’s a whole other ball game. Schools and daycare centers across the world have closed, and social distancing means help from babysitters, grandparents or other relatives often isn’t an option.
Working productively from home takes discipline and effort, but when you have kids or babies to think about, balancing the demands of family life with your work can seem impossible. For those remote working parents currently in the thick of it, these simple strategies can help you stay afloat.
1. Create boundaries around your workspace
Having a dedicated workspace is one of the most important things you can do to get work done with kids in the house. Stepping into your designated “office” and sitting down at your desk doesn’t only allow you to physically step into work-mode, it also helps your kids understand that you won’t be constantly available to them. Working from a space with a door you can shut provides a helpful physical boundary between work and home life. It can encourage children to realize that you have your own things you need to do – and if they’re old enough, they’ll hopefully be able to respect that.
Sometimes, setting up a separate workspace isn’t always possible. If you’re the sole parent, if your kids are very young, or if your home is small, you may not get the option to retreat to a work den – but this doesn’t mean you can’t create a dedicated workspace. If you need to supervise your kids, you could turn one half of your living room into a pseudo-classroom and the other half into your own mini office – even if it’s only a desk and a chair.
If this is the case, consider making a few small investments to create a more comfortable set-up: lap desks make working from the sofa much easier, and noise-cancelling headphones can work miracles when you’re trying to work with small children in the room. If possible, fashion your own “standing desk” space to protect your posture and avoid sitting down all day.
2. Create a schedule where you can prioritize deep work
Set a strict schedule that’s as close to your usual routine as possible. If your kids are waking up, getting dressed and having breakfast at the same time they would if they were at school, you can use their routine in a way that benefits you. Capitalize on quiet moments in your children’s schedules to get stuck into your most important work – your core schedule should effectively protect and prioritize time for deep work. Then, when the school lunch hour arrives, use that time to do shallow work – like catching up with emails and replying to asyncrhonous queries.
If you’re looking after a baby, you’ll obviously want to try to complete your most important work when they’re napping. The same principle applies for small children: draw up a daily routine for your kids to follow, and base it on their daycare routine – e.g. reading time, snack time, play time, nap time, etc. Be sure to schedule plenty of activities that don’t require supervision – e.g. bouncy chairs for babies, educational games for toddlers and small children, or reading for older kids – and use this time to do your own work.
Bear in mind that allowing younger kids to watch a movie or some TV is often the easiest way to find some uninterrupted time to focus!
3. Constantly communicate
Communication is a key part of any job, but if you’re a remote working parent, it becomes more important than ever. It’s crucial to keep your colleagues informed about your current situation, and the fact that you’re not just working from home – you’re also juggling being a full-time parent. No matter how professional you are, if you’re working with kids in the house, there will always be some surprises – as this viral BBC News interview perfectly illustrates!
Let your colleagues know that there may be times when they won’t be able to reach you, or when giving feedback or updates is delayed. Your children’s safety and wellbeing obviously comes first, so any issues with them will always take priority. Anyone who’s had a child will understand this, so don’t be afraid to over-communicate on this front. The more people are aware of your situation, the more likely they are to try to fit around you, and do what they can to help.
Make sure you let people know when you’re most likely to be available. Try to schedule conference calls or video chats for times when your children are napping or immersed in an activity. It can be helpful to use online tools to keep colleagues on the same page as you; e.g. if your company has several parents working from home, you might want to create a spreadsheet where you all outline your availability for calls – or use an intelligent meeting scheduler to book meetings automatically according to everyone’s stated availability hours. For more ideas, check out how remote teams communicate and these remote team communication tools.
4. Be flexible – and kind to yourself
While creating a good schedule is essential for remote working parents, you need to remember that things don’t always go according to plan. Whatever you’re planning, always try to factor in some flexibility. You can use the status of tools like Slack to quickly signal when you need to step away from work, and post quick updates of what you’ve worked on (along with any consequences for deliverables) in tools like Basecamp. When everyone is aware of what’s going on, interruptions and delays are infinitely easier to handle.
Sticking to a schedule as best you can is important, but you also need to be mindful of your own mental health – and being confined in a room with shrieking children can be an easy way to feel like you’re losing the plot! So be flexible with yourself and your own plans, too. If you feel you need to walk around the block to clear your head or take an early lunch, don’t feel bad for prioritizing that over finishing a piece of work or replying to an email. Be kind to yourself.
Maybe, during “normal” times, you were stricter about your children’s screen time or routines. But this current situation is about as far removed from “normal” as possible. Working from home while looking after your kids during a global pandemic – in a period where contact with others and even stepping outside is severely restricted – is an extreme situation. So it’s OK to relax rules and regulations. Everyone is working this out for the first time, and there is no correct or perfect solution for it. Just remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel – you won’t have to work on top of your kids forever!