By Teresa Brown, Vice President of Leadership Development
We’ve all seen the video: BBC News interviewing the dad in his home office when his adorable daughter marches into the camera shot like she owns the place (like she owns the world!). As the dad tries to brush her off, in rolls the baby in his walker. Then comes the mom, looking mortified, trying to push everyone out of the room as inconspicuously as possible. All the while, the dad tries to carry on with his internationally-broadcast interview.
It’s the perfect vignette of working from home when you have kids. Even in the best of times, when you’ve created clear boundaries and there’s a designated co-parent or childcare provider responsible for the kids during office hours, the line between home and work is always porous when you’re dealing with kids. It takes diligence and planning to make it work smoothly and to keep the distinctions clear.
And that’s in the best of times.
Over the past six weeks, with stay-at-home orders in place, schools and daycares closed, and traditional alternative childcare options (like grandparents) unavailable, working from home with kids has become a juggling act that has left many parents feeling stretched almost to the breaking point. And, even as some states begin to ease stay-at-home restrictions, we need to be prepared that the “new normal” may be one where the overlap between work and home will continue to be messier and less predictable than it has been in the past. Some parents may need to continue to juggle working from home with kids for months to come.
So, what are parents to do?
Below are five tips for easing the stress and strain of this “new normal.”
1. Be clear and realistic about expectations with yourself and others. If you have kids at home for whom you’re currently responsible at least part of the workday, you are not going to get as much work done in a day as you did previously. Period. It is hard to admit, but it is the reality of the world in which we are living right now. Even those who do not have children are finding their productivity is suffering because of stress and the disruption of our current environment. The reality is, even in the best of times, you rarely get everything on your to-do list done. Productive people are those who figure out what is most important and focus all their energy there. That requires that you be crystal clear about your work priorities. Make sure you understand what your organizational and team priorities are and whether anything has shifted as a result of the crisis. Make sure you understand any shift in your own role and responsibilities, as well as the deadlines you’re working with.
Talk with your supervisor. Be honest about your current family responsibilities and any limitations you face, while clearly affirming your commitment to your job and the success of your organization. Remember that your supervisor is also operating in this stressful environment. They’re juggling their own responsibilities and pressures. That may mean that even the most attentive boss may not recognize the challenges you’re facing. Talk to them. But make sure you go into the conversation prepared to offer your own plan for how you will get your work done, even if the how looks different than it may have looked in the past.
You might also want to discuss with your supervisor their level of comfort with you having a child in the room during some internal calls if needed (just make sure you know where your mute button is!).
2. Be creative and flexible with your schedule. If you have small children at home, the flow of your workday is likely being dictated to some degree by their schedule: Naps, feeding times, and attention spans. Even with somewhat older children, how long they can work alone on a project before they need you to engage or how long a program will keep their attention are likely factors driving the rhythm of your days right now. Try to avoid fighting that reality. Instead, build it into your workday.
At the beginning of your week, schedule those times on your work calendar when you know you’ll need to be focused on kids—time in the morning when you’ll need to get everyone working on school assignments, when you’ll need to make lunch, etc. At the same time, be deliberate about maximizing the available time in your schedule. Block time in the morning, before the kids get up, for more focused work. Plan calls for nap time. You may find it easier to schedule shorter meeting calls—30 minutes, instead of 60. It increases your flexibility and you’ll likely discover that you can get just as much done in a well-focused 30-minute call!
Then, make sure that your supervisor and colleagues know when you’ll be most available.
When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to slide into reaction mode—dealing with things as they come at you, cramming as much onto your calendar as possible. But it’s more important than ever to be deliberate about how you spend your time. Take time to figure out how you’re spending your time. Make a list of everything you need to get done in your week and then organize your calendar deliberately. The crazy will still creep in and you’ll have to make adjustments. But it’s easier to make smart adjustments when you have a solid plan to begin with.
3. Be clear when you’re off work. Much that has been written since the crisis began has focused on how to ensure you remain productive while you’re working from home. But, it’s equally important to be clear when you will switch “off.” When you work from home it’s easy to always be working. Give yourself permission to take time each day to be focused solely and unapologetically on family. And consider taking some of those blocks of time during the workday. Have lunch with your teenagers or take the baby for a walk. You’ll find you’re better able to focus after such a break. Remember, when you’re working in an office, you’re almost never sitting there staring at a screen for eight hours straight. You’re going out to lunch or walking into a colleague’s office just to chat. Those breaks help you recharge and keep you sharp.
And try to create a clear end to your workday. For those not used to working from home, it might help to create some kind of ritual to help establish space between your workday and “at home” time—a version of your normal commute home. Take a walk or grab a cup of coffee and sit on the porch for 10 minutes. Anything that lets you mentally separate yourself from your work and free your mind to focus on family. Even if you choose to work later that evening, after the kids have gone to bed, you’ll find you’re more productive and engaged if you’ve given yourself a true break.
4. Give yourself grace. Remember you are not the only one struggling. We are all living through an extraordinary time. You’ve probably seen the meme going around the internet: “You’re not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” That’s true for all of us, at least those of us fortunate enough to still have a job that we’re able to do from the safety of our home. We’re at home during a crisis trying to work. And taking care of kids. And our partners. And maybe other families or friends in need.
Whether we admit it on Facebook or not, we’re all struggling to figure out how to juggle it all. Your friends may be posting pictures of the bread they’re baking or the new quilt they finished, or the pretty pictures their kids are creating during “arts & crafts” time. But, remember, they’re probably less likely to post about crying in the shower at the end of the day because they can’t figure out how to get it all done. Or how they snapped at their kids over breakfast. Or how they blew a huge deadline and got called out by their boss. Resist the temptation to compare yourself, and how you’re managing, to the sanitized version of life others let you see.
The fear and uncertainty you’re feeling right now will tend to make everything seem worse than it is. Instead of judging yourself on everything you failed to cross off your to-do list today, try writing down at the end of the day everything you did get done. As a colleague reminded some fellow parents on a recent call: You got a lot done; it just may not have been things you knew at the beginning of the day you’d need to do—like spending an hour on the phone with a frightened parent or going for a walk with a kid who’s starting to climb the walls or messaging a colleague who was having a rough day.
Just don’t forget to take care of yourself too. Find someone you can call on when you’re the one having a rough day. Here at SPN, we’ve started hosting virtual happy hours and lunches to give us all a chance to talk about the various challenges we’re facing during this time. It’s amazing how comforting it is just to hear that others are struggling with the same things. Your network of friends and fellow parents are more important than ever. Stealing half an hour to talk with friends isn’t a luxury right now—it can be a lifeline that helps you stay strong. You have to take care of yourself so you can continue to take care of those who depend on you.
5. Try to keep your sense of humor. In the past two months, I’ve been on Zoom calls where there were two-year-olds in their underwear playing in the background. There have been toddlers in full melt-down mode and five-year-olds sharing their art work on staff calls. We’ve had moms sitting on the floor of their bathroom because it was the only quiet spot they could find, and dads doing calls as they chased their kids across the yard.
If you work from home with kids long enough, you’re going to have your BBC News moment. Just roll with it. As with almost any hiccup on a work call, how you react is more important than the disruption. Don’t waste valuable time with repeated apologies. Adapt as best you can and move on.
Sometimes you may just have to cry uncle. Sometimes the screaming two-year-old is going to win. Better to throw in the towel and pick up later.
But most of the time it’s not as bad as you think. Put yourself on mute, pick up the crying baby, and let the meeting move on. You’re a parent; multi-tasking is what you do!