The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. While politicians deal with the economic fallout, parents must surmount their own obstacles. It’s challenging to work from home and look after kids at the same time.
Having the kids home from school is always tough. Moving to remote work presents its own challenges for the inexperienced. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused both challenges to happen at the same time.
For many parents, this is the first time they’ve had to work from home, and the first time they’ve had to entertain their children during the day. New work at home moms and dads everywhere are struggling to adjust.
Let’s not sugar coat it: doing both of these things together is extremely difficult.
On the other hand, there are some compelling reasons to embrace remote work. Lots of people seek remote work for the flexibility to spend time with their kids.
Working from home during difficult times is frustrating, but it’s also an opportunity to grow closer as a family.
It’s natural to go through a learning curve when adjusting to anything new. Fortunately, we have some stellar advice to adjust to your new work-life situation.
We hope this guide will help you stay productive and maintain domestic harmony.
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Best tips to work from home as a parent
1. Set yourself up to work remotely
Let’s get some basics out of the way first.
Parenting aside, remote work is a different beast. Even without considering childcare, working from home takes a different set of skills than doing the same work in an office.
Remote work is sometimes romanticized. Have you ever seen those stock photos of someone sitting on a beach with a laptop and a fruity drink? Believe it or not, that’s not what remote work usually looks like, especially with kids.
Many people more realistically imagine that working from home is the same work you normally do, but in your pajamas with croissants readily available. As you will quickly realize, that’s not quite it, either.
The good news is that you can learn and adapt. You might even like remote work better than going into the office.
There are 2 separate skills to develop to master working from home: using the right tools and communicating well.
First, let’s talk about how to get more out of remote work. From there, we’ll give you some tips to get things done when there are kids around.
1. Choose the right tools at the right times
In the office, you probably have IT support. At home, you’re responsible for most of your own equipment and software.
The company should supply any software and specialized tools you need to do your job. Those will be the same programs you use in the office.
Working from home isn’t like working in the office, though.
When you work at home, your coworkers and manager can’t just stop by to see how things are going. It’s harder to coordinate team projects, and all of your communication challenges are amplified if you’re working different hours.
Here are some types of tools that can help:
Remote communication tools
Email alone is not going to cut it. One of the common complaints from teams that have gone remote is that their email inbox goes crazy. If email is your primary method of communication, you’re going to have a tough time with remote work.
You can still use email, phone calls, and all the communication channels you’re used to. Just make sure you use them for the right things.
Use video calls for conversations where body language and personal contact is important.
If you have a quick question that needs an immediate response, use Slack or whatever chat service your company uses. A phone call might be appropriate, but it’s polite to Slack first and ask if your coworker is available.
Email works best for things that aren’t time-sensitive, especially when there are related documents and links.
Be careful, though: email is terrible for tasks that require a lot of communication. Digging through an email thread to find the information you need is miserable. Instead of using email for this, leave comments in your task management software so that you can easily find that information when you need it.
2. Communicate openly
Be honest with your employees and colleagues about the change in scenery. Juggling childcare and remote work means you won’t always be as responsive or available.
That’s completely fine and normal. Let your employees know your situation, and encourage them to be just as open with you. You’re in this together.
The bottom line is that even before you update your remote work schedule, you should give your employees a heads up that your hours will change. Be proactive. By communicating ahead of time, you demonstrate trust and show your team that it’s okay to make some adjustments.
Openness shows respect. If you don’t tell your team what’s going on, they’re likely to be frustrated when you don’t answer quickly. Go out of your way to keep your team in the loop.
2. Schedule work, childcare, and life
You can, in fact, fit your job, your kids, and your other priorities all into one day. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.
Set a schedule that you, your partner, and your children can all stick to. While flexibility is one of the major benefits of remote work, you still need a clear plan to manage your time.
You can be as creative as you want with your schedule. Just be realistic, too. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself off track and more frustrated than ever.
Schedule work time
This is perhaps the most crucial step to balance remote work with parenting. Don’t be afraid to spend a few hours thinking about your schedule and discussing it with your partner and older kids.
Your schedule should include things like:
- Uninterrupted work time
- Flexible work time
- Dedicated quality time with your kids
- Supervised or unsupervised study
- Family meals
Once you’ve got things figured out on paper, give it a try. See what works and what doesn’t, and make updates as you need to.
Don’t just ignore the schedule if it’s not working, because that’s just going to cause more frustration. Changes should be structured and intentional. It’s also wise to give your family time to adjust before you decide whether or not this is working.
If you’re not the type to work from calendars and checklists, the idea of creating and following a daily schedule might sound like too much work.
Do it anyway.
Without some structure to your day, you’ll struggle to get any work done and you’ll feel off-balance, overwhelmed, and unfocused.
Tips for finding your balance
These three tips help you balance childcare with work:
- First, recognize that you need to work odd hours. Many parents who work from home full time (by choice, believe it or not) work very early in the morning or late at night. If your kids are young, you can take advantage of nap time to get some work done, too.
- Second, if you live with your partner, share childcare responsibilities fairly. The imbalance of responsibilities is emerging as a major problem, with mom handling the majority of childcare while dad works. At the end of March 2020, 57% of mothers and 32% of fathers of kids under 18 reported worsening mental health during the pandemic, per a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Split the work and you’ll both be better off.
- Third, prioritize your work activities to focus on essentials. During the pandemic, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’re going to stay at the top of your game at work and at home. There’s just too much going on. Allow yourself and your team some slack and let some of the lower priorities slide for now.
Schedule things for your kids, too
Don’t just plan out your activities and leave your kids to figure out the blank spots on their own. That’s how you get bored children interrupting you at least once every hour.
If your children are old enough, they should have some input in the family schedule. Since they helped create the plan, they’re more likely to follow it. It’s a lot like letting your kids help you cook when you’re trying to get them to eat more vegetables.
Print out your schedule and stick it up somewhere obvious so your kids can refer to it on their own. Even smaller kids will find it easier to understand why it’s not playtime yet when you point to the schedule.
Your kids’ schedule should include their responsibilities like household chores and schoolwork, plus some boredom busters to help them find activities on their own.
Here are some things you might schedule for your kids:
If your children’s school is providing online classes during the lockdown period, it’s a great place to start.
A quick read through their online class schedule can help you plan school work and study time. Depending on your child’s age and personality, you might need to schedule specific activities to help them decide what to study.
If school isn’t providing online classes, you can still use the free resources at Khan Academy. They offer lots of academic help and provide suggested daily schedules for students ranging from preschool to grade 12.
Virtual playdates and visits
Virtual playdates keep your kids happy and can help you find more uninterrupted time to work. Schedule video chats over a platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts so that your children can socialize with their friends.
Someone will probably have to supervise, but if you plan ahead with other parents, you can take turns being the chaperone. It might help to have a game or activity planned out in advance, or you can just let the kids chat. Your kids get to stay in touch with their friends and you get to share the parenting load with others.
You can also schedule virtual visits with grandparents or other family members. These can take place on the computer or on Facetime if you use compatible devices.
Quality time with you
Your life has been completely disrupted by the pandemic. Keep in mind that your kids have been just as shaken up as you.
With school and social activities canceled, your kids probably already feel more isolated. They’re getting less time with their peers, and if you’re focused on work, they can feel even more alone.
Spending some quality time with your kids is good for all of you.
Put away your work, turn off your phone, and give your child your full attention. It doesn’t count if you’re checking work emails or looking at your smartwatch.
Try to give each of your children a little one-on-one quality time every day. If that’s not practical in your situation, make sure to schedule a family meal or activity where you and your partner don’t discuss work or other grownups-only topics. The more you include and focus on your kids during family time, the less likely they are to interrupt you for attention during your work time.
It’s tempting to let your kids just zone out in front of the TV, but it’s a good idea to limit mindless screen time in favor of some more mentally stimulating activities.
Have you ever noticed that your kids will play with a phone while they’re watching TV? The less engaging an activity is, the more stimulus a person needs to stave off boredom. Zoning out in front of the TV for hours makes your kids feel even more bored than they were before because they’re not getting enough mental stimulation.
It’s not the screen that’s the problem; it’s the passive quality of this type of entertainment.
Schedule some activities for your kids that require more mental engagement. Here are some ideas:
- Reading something they enjoy
- Playing puzzle games like crosswords, sudoku, or jigsaw puzzles
- Doing arts and crafts projects
- Playing strategy games on the computer or a video game console
- Participating in an outdoor game or sport
Don’t overload your kids with high-engagement activities, either, or they’ll feel like they can’t relax. Just make sure they have one or two stimulating activities every day, and then when they sit down to watch a movie, they’ll actually sit through it and leave you alone.
3. Manage interruptions
No matter how many exciting activities you plan for your kids, they’ll still interrupt your work sometimes.
It’s not just your kids, either. Household chores, your spouse, phone calls from family members, pets, and more will all compete for your time.
Since you can’t prevent interruptions entirely, manage them by setting smart boundaries. Set aside some do-not-disturb hours for your more focused work. Make sure your kids have a quiet activity scheduled during that time, and if you live with your partner, cooperate so that one person has do-not-disturb time while the other is in charge of child care and urgent tasks.
During your do-not-disturb time, put up a big, visible sign to remind your family that you shouldn’t be interrupted. If you have smaller children who can’t yet read, you can use a stop sign symbol, a strip of tape across the door, or some other signal to indicate that you’re unavailable.
You can also use your do-not-disturb symbol when you’re on live calls or when you have to finish something important and need to focus.
By doing this, you can help your kids understand when you need to focus completely on work. You can even use masking tape on the floor to mark out your work zone. When it’s do-not-disturb time, your children aren’t allowed in that zone.
Do-not-disturb time is a reminder for you, too. Turn off notifications, silence the phone, and let the dishes sit in the sink until you’re done with your uninterrupted work.
You might be tempted to leave your do-not-disturb signal up all day, but that’s not smart. If your kid needs to talk to you and they see your sign, they’re more likely to wait until you take it down if they know it will only be an hour or so. However, if they know you keep your sign posted all day, they’ll just ignore it and interrupt rather than waiting for you to finish work. The key to managing interruptions is to allow them at specific times.
4. Give your kids some responsibility
Despite your well-planned schedule, you’ll never get anything done if you need to tell your kids what to do every minute of the day.
Leave some open space in the schedule where your kids can decide what they want to do on their own. Younger kids might choose from a few options, while older kids can probably figure it out on their own with less guidance.
Choosing their own lunches and snacks gives your kids a little more autonomy, too. If your child is old enough to make a sandwich without your help, they should be able to take care of their own lunch.
5. Seek help if you need it
If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, you are not alone.
Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. No matter how well you design your schedule, there will be arguments, tears, and tantrums — probably from both you and your kids.
So if things get a little tricky, don’t be afraid to look for resources or ask for help. Call a friend or relative when you just need to talk. Communicate with your partner about your mental health and ask for some extra time alone when you need it. Most people feel isolated right now, but there are lots of people who love and support you.
There are also plenty of resources out there to help you adjust and survive. The University of Sydney recently published this collection of resources to help parents like you find the right tools.
It’s a good idea to plan some time off, even though you probably feel like you’re behind on work. This stuff is hard. You need some time to manage stress and recover.
Even 30 minutes of quiet relaxation every day can help you handle stress better.
Right now, maintaining mental health is hard. You don’t have to feel guilty for being stressed about taking care of your own kids. These are not normal circumstances, and it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. Do what you can to manage your stress levels and maintain your mental health.
The silver lining
It might not feel like it right now, but once you get into the rhythm of working from home with your kids, you might decide that you want to work this way for the long term.
Outside circumstances are making everything harder right now, but as we adjust, things get better. A lot of parents love remote work. They even find it easier to be productive at home than they do in the office.
The biggest advantage is that you get to spend more time with your children.
Kids grow up so fast. It’s easy to miss milestones if you’re stuck at the office every day. Working from home means that you get to stay involved and watch your kids grow up.
Having you around more is good for your kids, too. Sure, the current situation is fraught with anxiety and strain, but by coming together with your family and working through it, you’re a parenting powerhouse. Your children will remember the lessons they learn from you during this difficult time.
A final word
We’ve said it a few times in this article — you’re not alone. Lots of parents are in the same situation, and we’re all just figuring it out as we go.
Have you had some success working from home with kids? Share your best tips and ideas in the comments. Other parents would love to hear from you.
About the Author
Dan Fries has more than 7 years of experience growing a remote company. He specializes in helping bootstrapped entrepreneurs prepare for a profitable exit by making better long-term financial decisions.