We’ve had to acquire many skills and address many of our weaknesses during this pandemic, but the main one we’ve all had to learn is how to juggle. For weeks, many of us have been juggling working from home with kids while trying to figure out the logistics of living in this completely unprecedented time. For weeks, many of us have been juggling financial worries and health worries as well as our own anxieties and guilt when it comes to the children getting too much screen time when they should be doing schoolwork. Whatever your situation, working from home with kids is challenging under normal circumstances (do we even remember what normal is anymore?), so to help you get through this period without tearing your hair out, here are 18 strategies to help you master it.
1) Create your optimal workspace at home
Sitting at the kitchen table where you can see your children playing or watching TV and even being around things in the house that need to be done (i.e. the dishes or the ironing), is not an optimal workspace. This is why the first step to working at home effectively is to choose your workspace where you’ll have minimal distractions.
The best workspace at home is somewhere where you can separate your roles as mum or dad and business person. For example, a spare room is ideal as you can shut the door when working which allows you to fully concentrate on your work for a set amount of time with little disruption. Then, when your ‘office hours’ are over, you can shut the door behind you and ‘switch off’ from work and be home. (Find out How to avoid back and shoulder pain when working from home)
2) Set boundaries and expectations with your children
The mistake that many parents make when working from home with kids is to not set their expectations. If your children don’t know what to expect, then how can you expect them not to distract you? Naturally, your children will want your attention every second of the day, they’ll want to spend time with you, but if you set the boundaries of your workspace and your office hours early on then they will quickly learn that just because your home it doesn’t mean you will be available 24/7.
Assuming that your children are old enough to keep themselves occupied, explain the situation to them and how important it is that you remain focused throughout the day with minimal interruptions. If they are younger, help them understand when you are in “do not disturb” mode by getting them to draw pictures and sticking these on your door. These can be as simple as a ‘stop’ and ‘go’ sign or a ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ – anything to signal when they can’t come in and when they can. Communicating boundaries helps you to stay focused and it ensures that you’re family don’t feel neglected as they know when they will get time with you.
3) Create a new daily routine for the family
In such a time of uncertainty, a new structure will help everyone. Don’t forget, your children’s lives have been uprooted too, so if you can create a new daily structure that resembles school for them and work for you, you’re winning.
To create a new daily routine that works for the whole family, discuss it together and trial and error. This could be getting up early to work before the children even wake up. Then, when you wake them, you eat breakfast and get dressed together as you do when they go to nursery/daycare/school. After you set them their first school task, you can do some more work or you can complete what you need to during their ‘lunch hour’ where they can play or use technology as a break. After another hour or two of schooling, you can then work in their break until it’s time for dinner. Whatever routine works for you, e.g. you working early or working when they go to bed, just make sure that you set your optimal “office” hours and keep as consistent a routine as possible. Make sure to eat together as a family too.
4) Plan ahead (aka plan for interruptions)
Working from home with kids (at least successfully) takes a lot of planning and preparation. If you find a structure that works for everybody, one that satisfies both work needs and those of your family, then this planning should become easier over time.
When it comes to work, always try to plan ahead. If something needs to be done by the end of the week, plan to do it at the beginning of the week. If you’re telling a colleague when to expect your work by, give yourself some extra time. With kids at home, you never know what each day will bring, so give yourself a fighting chance. By setting your own internal deadlines and giving yourself extra time to deliver, this prevents any interruptions from affecting your work. Think about it, would you rather plan for the worst and deliver work early or promise a deadline and miss it?
5) Be prepared to be flexible
A plan and a schedule are necessary, essential to making it through this period even, but you need to leave room for change. As we said, if your children are having a bad day and need a bit more attention from you or if it’s a beautiful day and you want to spend it with them in the garden, then do. It’s okay to move your schedule around every once in a while, especially during this time, so be flexible. If you’ve planned ahead, you can afford to do this without it negatively impacting your work. Plus, you can always catch up later.
6) If you have very young children, capitalise on naptime
Work smarter, not harder, by working productively in increments throughout the day. For example, if you have very young children and they still nap 1-2 times a day, use this time to get a productive hour to three hours of work done. During naptime, you can use this opportunity to make work-related phone calls or to complete any assignment that requires deep-thinking or just peace and quiet.
Quick tip: if for some reason, they aren’t tired, you can still place them in their crib but give them some books for their amusement. It may take around 20 minutes for them to get restless or they will self-soothe and fall asleep.
7) Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more
The best advice for parents working from home with kids is to “communicate as much as possible, more than you think is necessary.” Communicate with your spouse, communicate with your children, communicate with your other family members who don’t live with you, and communicate with your colleagues. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and, perhaps more importantly, it takes immense pressure off you.
The more transparent you can be, the better for everyone so communicate your boundaries and your working hours with your partner and children. For some, you may have to communicate this with your other family members too so that they don’t ring for a chat in those golden hours that you have set aside for work. As hard as it may be, you should also communicate your situation with your colleagues too. A lot of parents are in the same boat at the moment so it’s okay to share that you are trying your best to juggle the needs of your children with work, they’ll understand. By simply being transparent at the start of a conference call by saying something like “Just to let you know, I might have my child walk into this room, and if that happens I will handle it and will get right back to you,” this ensures that your colleagues aren’t caught by surprise and it puts you at ease as you’ve set their expectations.
8) Create a ‘special’ list of activities for your children to do only when you’re working
You may not think that younger children will amuse themselves, but trust us, they will if you make their own ‘quality time’ something to look forward to. Think about their favourite toys or films and what activities they love to do but perhaps don’t get to do very often. Think of these together and write a list of ‘special activities to do when mum/dad is working.’
Very quickly, you’ll find that they’ll look forward to these periods where they get to watch their favourite film or choose an exciting activity from the list. They may even ask you when you’ll be working just so that they can choose a special activity! If you’ve put the right things on this list, you’ll be rewarded with happy children and around 2 hours worth of uninterrupted work time.
9) Ask the school to help you prioritise their learning
Thousands of parents have been trying to juggle two-three full-time jobs: being a parent, working remotely, and homeschooling their children. This is extremely demanding and it’s important to know that schools do not expect you to keep up with the curriculum that they would be getting through in the classroom. They know that you are not teachers and they will help you.
Long-distance online learning is a challenge for all ages so if you want to ease the pressure for both you and your children, get in touch with the school and find out what the highest priorities are for your children to be learning. As long as your children are getting through these, you can be at peace that they are learning what they should be.
10) Take your children through ‘emergency drills’
Have you ever experienced the embarrassment of having your child burst into the room during a conference call? Have you fumbled your way through a phone call because your child’s cries in the background have distracted you? If you haven’t experienced these yet, you’re bound to have spent a lot of time worrying about the possibility of it happening. That’s just a day in the life of a parent working from home with kids.
To minimise the risk of something like this happening while you’re working, consider carrying out simulations or ‘emergency drills’ to teach your children how you wish them to behave in certain situations. For example, if the phone rings and it’s work, get your children to practice sitting quietly with their fingers on their lips as they patiently wait for you to finish. If you have a conference call, get them to go into another room where they can quietly read a book or play with their toys. If you practice certain scenarios a couple of times a week, where you can reward your children for good behaviour, you can be confident that your children will be quiet in the moments where you need it most. Or near enough anyway.
11) Reward good behaviour and offer incentives
As we just mentioned, always reward your children when they behave in the way that you would like them to when you’re working. Children love positive reinforcement and praise, so when they don’t interrupt you when you’re on the phone or come into the room when you’re on a video call, make sure to thank them.
Rewards such as screen time, a sticker book, extra quality time with you, treats for mealtimes such as pizza night or popcorn and a family film, can really give them the incentive to behave while you work. The same goes for bad behaviour that you don’t want too. You can withdraw these rewards or privileges to incentivise good behaviour.
12) Share household chores between the family
COVID-19 is a time of crisis so reinforce this ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos at home by having everyone contribute to the team effort. This will be good for the family as it makes everyone feel like a valued member of the household, but it will also help to ease the pressure for you too.
Think about what little things which would help you a lot. It could be something as simple as having your younger children tidy away their toys, dress themselves or make their beds in the morning. For older children, they can help you set and clear the table, empty the rubbish bins, clean their room or put the shopping away. Any job that will help ease the pressure of working from home, juggling the family needs, and running a household, can be shared. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved.
13) If possible, take shifts with your partner
Not everyone will be in a position where this is possible, but if both you and your spouse are working from home, take advantage of this. Alternating shifts with your partner can make working remotely a lot easier. It can be something as simple as you waking up early to work the first half of the day while your partner wakes the children, makes breakfast and manages the first half of their school day. Then after lunch, you can switch. This allows you to both have uninterrupted work time and ensures that your children have a consistent schedule for their wellbeing too.
Important note: if you are a single parent or your partner is a key worker, a strict schedule and extra planning will be needed to maximise your day.
14) Don’t expect to work at your normal capacity
While it’s important to manage everyone else’s expectations when working from home, it is absolutely crucial that you manage your own too. You will not be working at 100% from home, especially with your children home and the toll that the pandemic is taking on your mental wellbeing, it’s impossible. That’s just a fact and the sooner you accept this, the better you will feel and the better you will work.(See our strategies for coping with a big life change)
By setting realistic expectations when it comes to work, you can avoid the frustration and stress that will come from not doing as much as you wanted. It also allows you to start the day anew rather than behind on your own schedule because that’s no good for anybody’s productivity! To help you set realistic expectations while working from home, our advice is to overestimate the time it will take you to do things. Take your to-do list for the day and cut it in half, maybe even half again. Schedule two days for things that usually take you one. Set yourself a maximum of five goals for the day: one or two things you really need to accomplish at work, one or two things you want your kids to accomplish, and then one family or partner goal (even if it’s just collapsing on the sofa together at the end of the day for some quality time). By setting your expectations lower, you are setting yourself up for success, not failure. This will ensure that you get done everything that has to get done which mentally, is a huge boost. Imagine starting every day on schedule or even ahead of schedule rather than fighting to catch up?
15) Take breaks from work throughout the day
Just as you would in the office, take regular breaks when working from home. If you don’t, then your focus, productivity, and potentially your wellbeing will suffer. Find what work increments and types of breaks work for you. For example, it could be taking 10 minutes for every hour of focused work you complete or it could be the Pomodoro technique (working in 25-minute increments with 5-minute breaks, then after 4 increments you take a longer break of 15-20 minutes).
In your breaks, it’s important to completely switch off from your work, otherwise, you won’t return refreshed with renewed energy to focus again. Fill your rest periods with communication, exercise or mindfulness as these are some of the best ways to unplug. This could be doing a quick at-home yoga session, going for a walk with your children, meditating, reading or baking, whatever works best for you.
Quick tip: taking breaks is fine, just remember to communicate this to your team when you’ll be away so they know when they can reach you again.
16) Accept that your kids will be getting more screen time
If your children, regardless of their age, are getting more screen time, I can assure you that you are not the only parent allowing this and that it most certainly doesn’t make you a bad one; it just makes you human. Many parents are sitting their toddlers in front of a Netflix cartoon or an iPad game to get 45 minutes of critical work done or they are being far more lenient on how long their teenager spends on the Xbox as long as they get their homework for the day done. It’s not the end of the world.
Working from home with kids for weeks on end is exhausting, so don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing your best, so try not to feel guilty about letting your children indulge. It’s a stressful time for them too. As long as you communicate to them that this privilege is temporary and that it won’t go on forever, your children will know not to expect this as the new normal and you can focus on letting go of that guilt so that you can be productive now.
17) Exercise together every morning
Physically tired kids are more likely to sit. Not only that, but they are better able to focus on their schoolwork for longer too. If they are sitting and working for longer, then this means that they are less likely to interrupt you while you work – see where we’re going with this?
Even if you or your children don’t feel like it, exercise together every morning. Exercise first thing burns off the high energy levels that children have and it releases those all-important endorphins which are essential for everyone’s health and wellbeing. Not only will they help you all sleep better, but they also boost self-esteem, reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, and they help you to focus, all of which are essential to support our wellbeing during this time. Many parents are implementing P.E. lessons first thing in the morning or are starting the day with a family walk or cycle. Find out what works for your children and mix it up.
18) Be kind to yourself (and have your own rewards too)
Thousands of parents have been experiencing that steep learning curve of what it means to work full-time from home while trying to entertain and educate their children, and I can tell you now that not one of them isn’t struggling. This is beyond difficult so it’s important that you have some compassion for yourself to help you get through.
Whether it’s lowering your own expectations, checking in with other parent friends who can commiserate or just giving yourself a break in the form of ‘alone time’ or a relaxing bubble bath, do what you need to to put your wellbeing first too. Remind yourself that no one has experience juggling the range of things that many parents are currently juggling. Acknowledge your efforts regularly and forgive yourself often. Before you go to sleep, tell yourself “I’m going to sleep well and wake up tomorrow to do what I need to how I can. It doesn’t have to be perfect – just good enough.”
Master working from home with kids
Thousands of parents have been juggling the demands of home and work-life for over 3 months now and I can assure you that no one is doing it effortlessly. There’s no one-solution-fits-all that will make this any easier (no matter how hard we wish), it’s just about doing your best.
Using these 18 strategies, you can master working remotely and taking care of your children as best as you can and that is enough. Just focus on keeping a routine, plan ahead, communicate with each other clearly, accept help where you can, and embrace the things that will inevitably change because if we’ve learned anything over the past 13 weeks, it’s that things inevitable will.