Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen many people and companies forced into a new reality of remote work as a way to keep employees healthy and help stop the spread of infection.
While much of the discussion is focused on how to ensure employees remain productive and continue to be able to collaborate effectively, today I’d like to focus on an element of remote work that is often overlooked. Namely, how does remote work impact working parents, especially when daycare is closed or schools are out of session.
As the parent of two young children and the head of design here at Tidelift, a company that has been remote-first since the beginning, I have a few years of trial-and-error experience working remotely with children at home. I thought I’d share a few of the key things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Don’t panic.
If the immediate vision you have of what it will be like to work from home is the terror you might feel the first time you are sitting on a video call with your boss, and your three year-old needs immediate (perhaps bathroom-related?) attention, you are not alone. These things will happen. I’m here to tell you that sometimes they may be even worse. There may be permanent markers, peanut butter, or a sibling involved.
But you will be OK, and here is why. The work world is changing. My experience has been that most people understand these life disruptions more than you think they will. Often, they have children too. As the lines between home and work become more blurry, the work world is becoming more accepting of things that show we are human and not just robot workers. My colleagues and leadership team continuously model their humanity, and I can feel comfortable giving my kids the mic briefly at our morning standup—sometimes just that moment of your kids being included is all it takes to get some peace in return from them. Plus, it gives you some shared experiences to talk about outside of work.
If you find yourself in a role or organization that isn’t handling remote or child-related interruptions well, give yourself grace and try to recompose. Remind yourself that this is work, and that it will still be there in 10 minutes if you need to excuse yourself from a call. Sometimes the more professional approach is to just ask for a brief break to return with 100% focus.
2. Prepare your home for remote.
Set some sane defaults around workspace, equipment, boundaries with your family. Mom’s desk is where her work is done, and it is not a playspace. If you see I am talking to someone on the computer, please see how far you can get arguing over the Frozen microphone on your own unless it is an emergency (potential actual emergency: Let it Go on repeat all day long). If you need something from me, wave at me, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. My experience has been that it is best to have a dedicated work area, ideally a room where you can have some privacy for virtual meetings and kids are still free to make noise in other rooms.
When my kids are home with me, I try to model their regular environment and schedule as much as possible. Designate space for puzzles, art, blocks, home living (real world cooking implements like muffin tins or whisks can be really thrilling), or TV rotations (hey, they don’t have that at school!). Routine is my only fighting chance of getting that nap time break.
3. Set schedule expectations.
Talk to your manager and team about what you expect your schedule to be, with the understanding that kids are unpredictable and your schedule may need to adapt on short notice. Again, my experience has been that most people understand—especially if they are parents themselves. If your team doesn’t have firsthand experience, it becomes even more important to set and manage super clear expectations.
For me, it often means that I may have at most four hours of productive work time during standard working hours if my partner is home. Which means I usually make up for that time very early in the morning, and during the evenings after the children have gone to bed. If you’re doing the math here, that means less time for yourself (see below).
Also set some clear goals for whatever timeframe you expect to be working at home with kids. This will keep outcomes tangible for you and your team, and help head off any analysis paralysis that might emerge from being put in an unusual situation (if being remote with children is not your routine).
4. Make a plan for self care.
If you are working the double shift of caring for your children and working a job during the day, it often means that you’ll need to spend time in the evenings catching up on extra work. The reality is that this may leave less time for self care. So you need to plan times in your week that are for you, or you and your partner, and not related to work or children.
One additional thing that works for me is embracing play as a method for self care. Take walks with your children. Blow bubbles, have a dance party, draw or color together. When you do things as a family that make everyone happy, this can have a huge impact in terms of keeping you calm and sane. Here are some activity guides by age for kids that might inspire you. Also, don’t hesitate to use technology however your household chooses to; sometimes it can be the tool you need to help you out when you have an important meeting or a pressing deadline.
5. Make a household management plan.
If you have a partner, grandparent, or other support buddy in your life, work out a plan with them to share household duties. Who is in charge of laundry? Maybe now is the perfect time for your kids to learn how to fold clothes? What are some easy dinner recipes that don’t require a lot of time or attention? Consider the snack bar as a family feeding plan. Who among us does not love snacks!
6. Look for virtual community support.
Now’s the time to reach out to other parents within your organization, school or daycare, or online communities. I’m personally a part of several groups that connect parents geographically or within the tech industry. Get a text chain of support going with people who understand what you’re experiencing. Share ideas, share your pain, and share your successes.
7. Embrace the opportunity!
If you look at working with children at home from a glass half full perspective, perhaps some new and interesting possibilities will emerge that you hadn’t considered. Maybe you’ll get to spend more synchronous time with colleagues in another time zone? Maybe your children might start to discover more autonomy? Your kids will learn that work matters to you. And over time, they'll get exposed to things that will be thought-provoking for them. When every day is "take your child to work day," they end up learning quite a bit that they otherwise would not.
Finally, just remember that none of this is permanent. Although it may feel like an eternity, you will get through it, and the people around you in most cases will understand and be empathetic. For most, working with children at home is temporary. Be kind to yourself. You will have moments of frustration with your family, your job, and often both. Feel the feelings and then keep moving on.
We’ve got this!