Working from home with children will not be easy. It is time to get real, understand the challenges and accept our limitations.
Here are some tips and suggestions for those trying to navigate working from home with children.
We are living through, and facing further, extraordinary times where everything we know to be normal is being turned upside. For those of us who have the option to work from home, this may be the first time you are trying to managing remote work and for many, this is coupled with having children who require home schooling. Whilst it is a privilege to still have a job during these times when so many are now suddenly unemployed, and it is indeed an enormous privilege to be able to retreat to the safety of home (unlike our essential workers and those on the front-line) we must also acknowledge that working from home comes with its own set of challenges and difficulties. To acknowledge these concerns and attempt to provide support to those trying to work from home does in no way dismiss or minimise the struggle and adversity faced by those who’s problems might seem ‘bigger’ or more urgent. But we must try where we can, and in writing this article I hope to provide some support and reassurance to those who are struggling to work from home with children. My hope is that by ‘keeping the world working’ where possible we can maintain some semblance of normality and be ready to return to the streets and the businesses when all of this is over with our jobs in tact and money in our pockets ready to spend when the world is open for business again.
So, here are a few things to keep in mind as you try to navigate working from home. Just remember, if you have very young children you will need to be even more mindful that your productivity will be impacted. This is not ‘business as usual but done from home’. You will need to have some open and honest conversations with your organisation/manager about your limitations if you have very small children at home and are expected to maintain your normal output. It will just not be possible to maintain the productivity you were capable of in the office so don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. Have that discussion early into the arrangement rather than attempt to soldier on and try to ‘make it work’.
Keep up your friendships
It can be difficult when you are working remotely to maintain friendships so don’t leave things to chance – schedule in regular catchups with your friends. Even a short 15-minute phone call can help you feel connected. Most of us are now relying on tech so why not transfer your real-life (or life-before-this-nightmare) social activities to regular virtual catchups now that we aren’t able to connect in person? If your friends aren’t tech savvy why not help them set up their devices for video calls? Remember, if it is not in the diary it won’t happen so get planning and make time for the important people in your life.
Make sure you move!
As tempting as it is to totally immerse yourself in your work when you get chance (like when the kids are occupied with their own learning *if you are lucky enough* or when you have an urgent deadline coming up and so on…) remember to schedule in regular breaks to move your body. Your eyes also need a break so even if it is only for 5 minutes at a time, stop what you are doing and get out of your chair. Rest your eyes by looking away from screens or small print and have a drink of water. Your productivity depends on your health so take care of your body.
Manage your energy not your time
One of the benefits of remote work is the certain degree of freedom it allows us to set our own schedule. This means in theory (depending on your industry and role) that you get to decide when and where you do your work – what should matter is the output. Spend some time noticing how you feel throughout the day to identify when you are at your peak in terms of concentration, energy and motivation. Try schedule your work activity to fall within those periods. Be realistic if you have children at home and make sure you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself. What worked ‘before isolation’ might not work as well now. Think of using your energy in small blocks – if the children are busy with an online learning game and you can be assured of some peace and quiet, use that time for focused work. If you know you need to (half) supervise a science-experiment, use that time to do admin or low effort tasks. While it is important to plan, still accept that these are unusual times and be kind to yourself if your plans need to change or you don’t get all your tasks completed.
Make sure you celebrate! Celebrations are one of the perks of working in an office…think of the birthday morning teas or after work drinks to mark a job well done. Sometimes remote workers can forget to build fun and celebration into their workdays. Just because your team is working remotely, you can still celebrate virtually. Make a deliberate effort to start a meeting with ‘wins’. Ask everyone to share something small they are celebrating.
And celebrate by yourself as well! It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or involve food (though, that always goes down well with me!) it could be as simple as giving yourself half an hour to sit on the veranda and watch the clouds or listening to your favourite podcast while trying to get some physical activity (keeping in mind social distancing/isolation restrictions). Acknowledge your achievements and do something to celebrate. In times of ‘big’ stress, celebrating ‘small’ joys is even more important. There is something every day for us to be happy about or grateful for. Try hard to find these things and acknowledge that while times are challenging, there is always something small to celebrate.
If in doubt overcommunicate
Working remotely requires excellent communication and sometimes huge problems or disagreements can be traced back to very minor, tiny miscommunications. Don’t fall victim to the perils of miscommunication and if in doubt, double check and then check again. It is better to over-communicate and be super clear on expectations and boundaries than it is to assume and hope for the best. Most people are aware that the written word can be misinterpreted as it lacks the nuances of face-to-face communication. Especially now, during these times of increased stress and tension, think carefully about your choice of words and read the text out loud to ensure you have got the tone right.
Accept boundaries have changed
When you don’t ‘go to work’, it can difficult to ‘leave’ work. In an ideal world you would make sure you have adequate rest and time away from work, set yourself clear boundaries around your time and be firm with maintaining those boundaries. You would be mindful not to let work creep into family time. We all know that without time away to restore and recharge, our productivity will suffer. However, these are unusual circumstances and following this advice is going to be especially difficult if you are working from home and are also expected to ‘home school’. The best option we have at this time is to try and work with our mental schemas to try and prime our brains for professional work so that when we get the opportunity to focus on work, we can get straight to task. A quick and easy way to do this is with visual/physical cues. For example, try to only work in one place of the house rather than taking your laptop to where-ever the kids are who need supervising (though obviously that will be necessary at some point, let’s be realistic!). It could be something as simple as putting on a work jacket or using a particular chair. Try to find visual cues or props that your mind will associate with ‘work time’ to help you delineate between work and home duties but again, be gentle with yourself. This won’t always be possible and rather than be too harsh with yourself just accept that there will be times you will have to throw in the hat (literally if one of your props/cues is a particular hat!) to focus on your family. Equally, there will be times that your work will have to take priority and you might have to sit the kids in front of a screen (again!) so that you can meet an urgent deadline. The key is to accept that boundaries have become blurred and very difficult to maintain and don’t place super-human expectations on yourself to maintain them.
Having said that, rituals can help. As I mentioned above, do you have any rituals that signal to your brain it is time to work? Going into an office gives your brain all sorts of cues that it is time to work and for those of us who work remotely, our environmental cues are more likely to scream at us “Time you got that washing on the line” or “Geez, those dishes are piling up”. Establish some rituals that prep your brain for work. You might decide to put on a particular jacket or change your glasses to your ‘work glasses’ (like I do). It might something as simple as changing the chair you are sitting in, but it needs to be something you do each time you begin work so that you start to establish behavioural associations and get yourself into a professional work mindset.
Build some tech-free time into your day. Now more than ever we are going to rely on technology for productivity and connection (professional, emotional and social). Even if you can only manage to be screen/phone/device free for a short amount of time your brain will benefit from the lack of stimulation. Get out into nature – or if that is not possible at this time – just spend some time looking out of the window at the world changing and moving around you. Time away from screens will benefit you both physically and mentally and unless you are in the middle of something absolutely urgent (in which case, don’t set yourself up to fail on this one!) life will go on and things can wait for an hour while you recharge and restore your mental and emotional energy.
We are all told we should multitask and that, if possible, we should do as much as we can with the time, we have to improve our productivity and efficiency. Well, if you struggle to do anything properly when you are juggling 15 different balls, don’t despair. It is not your fault. Well, not exactly. Our human brain just hasn’t caught up with modern demands and much prefers to focus on one task at a time and give that task attention and focus. So, work with it and schedule your activities so that you can concentrate on one thing at a time. If that is really not possible now you are working from home and perhaps have children you need to supervise or help with schoolwork, don’t try multi-task the deep work (as Cal Newport terms it). Rather save your (limited) distraction-free time for those tasks that require focus and concentration. Try to only multi-task with the jobs that don’t require too much brain power like archiving emails or documents.
At the end of your working week (or day or night or however life works for you) have a mental declutter by writing down everything that is on your mind. Have a specific place you do this, like a nice thick notebook and keep it solely for this purpose. You will feel so much better getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper and can switch off knowing nothing will be missed because it is written down to be actioned later.
Don’t fear setbacks
Set-backs are a wonderful opportunity for you to pause, reflect and re-direct if necessary. When things go wrong instead of automatically thinking of it as a negative, reframe the situation as being a good opportunity to review what happened and turn it into a positive opportunity to make informed decisions that will benefit you in the future. Many people are experiencing remote work for the first time and in circumstances where prior planning and organisation hasn’t been possible. This means everyone is learning and trying to adapt to new ways of relating and working. Try think of this as an experiment and use your experiences to provide feedback to your organisation for how remote work can look in the future.
Build up your resilience muscle
Just like those flabby bingo-wing arms that respond wonderfully to a few tricep dips, resilience is like a muscle that will get stronger and more efficient as you work on it and invest in its development. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of ‘why me’ and feeling like a victim in life, decide that regardless of the situation you will look at what you can control. We can’t predict or control what life will throw at us, but we can absolutely control how we respond to those events. Not all of us are naturally resilient so if you need help, just like you would for training your body, find someone to guide you through some simple exercises to build your expertise in this area. But also, having said all that, just remember that it is completely normal to feel anxious, stressed and out-of-sorts with what is currently happening in the world. Everything as we know it has turned upside down. As the saying goes ‘It is okay not to be okay’. If you need it, seek professional advice. Psychologists are an essential service so are still open and available to help and there are many excellent tele-health options available.
One of the risks of working remotely is that often the only information we have to compare our career progress against is what we see on our friends’ social media feeds. As we know from our personal lives, social media is used to showcase the best of life, not the realities of life. The same applies to what people post about their experiences working from home with kids around. Think colour-coded walk charts and photos of kids sitting neatly in front of workbooks with glasses of milk and plates of fruit at their sides while their parents are powering through work projects, blowing up deadlines with smoking hot ambition. Don’t feel like you are missing out or not succeeding just because your reality doesn’t match up to the glitz and glamour you see other people promoting. March to the beat of your own drum. Run your own race (and all those other hashtag worthy phrases!) because it really is true. The only things you need to compare yourself against are your own values, goals and expectations. And now is a good time to review those expectations. Let’s be frank, if you manage to just get through the day with a few bits of work completed (no matter how small), kids and relationships alive and intact and in good health – at this stage that is #winning. Now, if you add into that you have managed to buy toilet paper…well…#winningatlife.
No one could have predicted this situation we are now facing. No one started 2020 with any inkling that by March we would be sheltering in our houses, fearful of an invisible killer that has effectively changed life and humanity as we know it. We are all doing our best and trying to figure this out as we go. Take each day as it comes and do what works for you. Comparing yourself doesn’t work at the best of times, and it absolutely will do nothing for your mental health during these worst of times. So, take it easy and stop comparing yourself to others and (most importantly) stop comparing your current output, motivation and emotional capacity to your BEFORE self. Life will go back to normal and you can pick up those expectations later if they are still working for you. Until, be agile and adapt -your mental well-being depends on it.
And to conclude…don’t lose hope. Things will go back to normal eventually. This will come to an end. If you are struggling with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, consider getting some professional advice from a qualified mental health professional. And don’t forget to reach out and connect with each other. If there was ever a time to realise that we are all in this together – it is now. And it will be by sticking together that we will get through this.