It’s one thing to make a deliberate decision to accept a telecommuting job knowing full well your school-age kids will be out of the house during work hours and your bitty babies will be blissfully napping at predictable intervals throughout the day, giving you plenty of productive hours. This is the Instagram version of working from home — all the filters, #blessed.
It is another thing entirely to wake up one morning to find that your kids will be home until further notice, they’re still expected to learn on your watch, social distancing isn’t doing you any favors, and somehow you still have 40 hours of work to complete each week from your home office, but you’re looking around your home that BAH bought wondering where you’re supposed to find an office space. This is the meme version of working from home — #coronavirus #sendhelp.
There’s a lot of advice out there for making working from home work, some good, some I know for sure would never work with my kids — at ages 7 and 9, they still think they’re being less disruptive if they whisper their complaints and requests when I’m in the middle of working. So, let’s save everyone some time (that frankly we don’t have right now anyway) and assume “regular” work from home advice wasn’t written for the conditions you’re working with during COVID-19. You don’t necessarily have time to whip up balanced lunches midday, let alone gather art supplies and set up a home classroom for your kids. And, once their schedules are managed, we get to focus on that whole 9-5 gig moving into your house. Let’s knock the whole telework with kids thing down to the foundation.
Decide what you need to not have to use your big voice with the kids by 8:02 am, set the boundaries and enforce them. You’ll have some extra rules for your kids and yourself during these unique circumstances, but basics still apply:
- Set screen time restrictions. Yes, it’s easier in the short run to let the tablet babysit, but you’ll pay for it later in the day when everyone is in screen-zombie mode, irritable, and nothing on their to-do list is checked.
- Limit snacks. This is not the time for bored snacking. I know you don’t want to go stand in those long grocery store lines any more than necessary.
- No “fun” until work is done. But nothing is stopping you from weaving a little fun into the lessons.
- During “work hours,” bring things to mom or dad only if they are emergencies. Or if it’s a smaller problem you’ve already tried to solve yourself.
I don’t care how much of a self-motivator you are, if you don’t have a routine as a telecommuter with kids as home, it won’t work:
- Start your day the night before. Finish the dishes. Get the laundry set to start first thing in the morning, make sure toys and your day’s work are cleaned up, giving you a clean slate for the next day. Cue up the kids’ lessons for the next day (if school sends them that far in advance), or at least plan a backup activities. Prep meals. Make your to-do list the night before and prioritize it.
- Decide when you’re the most productive. Then, schedule a block of worktime there and this is when you knock out your highest-priority task for the day. Are you a morning go-getter? Get up before the kids, hammer out a solid hour or two of uninterrupted work and use that momentum to get you through the day.
- Abide by breaks just like you would in the office. The hardest part to adjusting to working at home is keeping lunch in the fridge until lunchtime. If I know a plate of leftovers waiting for me, I want it by 9:30 am, and my day is derailed from there. Schedule lunch for you and the kids so you can eat, interact and address the next thing on the agenda. Do the same with short 10-15-minute breaks.
For every time you whisper to yourself that this is crazy and you can’t focus, your kids are saying it through a bullhorn…inches from your face…during work hours. Kids need structure and structure has left the building. So, it’s up to you to create clam from chaos right now:
- Make a routine and give it a name. Naming your new, temporary routine tells your kids, “Listen up, this is different, so pay attention.” Post the routine on the fridge, in their rooms, or another high visibility location, and be specific. Break it down by the hour.
- Have time fillers ready to go. It will happen, your kid will finish math 20 minutes early because it’s her favorite and she’s a math whiz, so be ready for this. Make a list of things your kids can do if they finish early — read, draw, build with blocks, complete a chore for some extra points. Heading them off with a solution before they have a chance to interrupt your workflow is huge.
- Mirror their school day as much as possible. Eventually, they’ll return to school (right?), so keep things as close to normal as possible.
- Get active as much as possible. Inside or out, it’s good for all of you!
When you’ve set rules and routines, you need to be clear. When you’re working, they need to let you work unless it’s an emergency. When it’s time for them to work, they need to focus and get it done. A little incentive never hurt either. Use screen time or a fun “together” activity at the end of the day as motivation to keep you all focused.
Make sure your kids know when it’s independent work time and conversational work time. Independent means you (and your kids need to completely focus). During conversational time, you can split your focus more easily — save your email inbox for this time of day.
This can be a challenge when you don’t have space to spare. Space is an even bigger issue when kids are home because you can’t very well lock yourself in a home office if you’re fortunate enough to have one. Your kids will inevitably need you for something and for safety reasons, they need to have access to you, especially if they’re younger. Your kids will need a workspace too during this stretch of their own telework stint. Consider using their usual homework spot and pick your spot from there. Maybe you share the kitchen table or work in neighboring rooms if you have an open floorplan.
When None of That Goes as Planned:
This is the most important part of this entire blog. None of the stuff above is going to work perfectly right away or all the time. You’re out of your element. Your kids are out of theirs. No one is necessarily happy with the sudden, temporary change — personally, if we’re all out of school and work, I’d rather be on vacation than in the living room, but that isn’t an option right now and dwelling on it is only going to waste time we definitely don’t have to spare.
Take it a day at a time, which should be easy since orders, guidance (especially for military families), and toilet paper inventory are changing daily. This is temporary. Give yourself some grace; be very transparent with your office so they know your situation. Muster up some extra patience for your kids. And remember that you’ll get through this just like you’ve gotten through every other challenge so far.