As we mentioned in our previous post about #wfh, our construction project management software and consulting firm has been an exclusively work-from-home shop for over a decade. What’s different for us right now, speaking only practically, is that there are other people in our workspaces who weren’t here before—including a lot of kids! Many of us are parents, and one of the myriad working-remotely benefits that we moms and dads have all leveraged is that when a child is ill, we don’t have to miss work; so we have some experience in #wfhwithkids here. But this is not that.
There’s a world of difference between lovingly administering a bit of acetaminophen and chicken soup in between Web meetings, once in a while; and engaging a baby, young child, big kid, and/or teen all day long, every day, in required schoolwork, active play, meaningful connection, and management of feelings, while meeting work needs and maintaining team cohesion in addition to keeping all your people and pets safe and healthy, and keeping your apartment clean. That would be a superhuman list of responsibilities if you were already set up to work remotely and there were no pandemic-related concerns about physical, emotional, or economic security. Orchestrating a reasonably functional work-from-home situation on the fly requires creative and compassionate cooperation among all members of your team, your household, and your children’s school community.
Just as with designing and maintaining a successful project schedule, front-loading your effort here can really pay off. That’s especially hard to do when you’re caught off guard, and you’re getting set up while a lot of change is affecting your circumstances simultaneously—and continuously—but each day will likely go more smoothly if you can let a few tasks simmer for longer than you typically would, in order to use your resources to analyze and plan out not the precise details of this new and evolving work life, but the big-picture logic into which the details will fit.
Ask yourself some vital questions, and if there’s another adult in your home, discuss your collective responses from a standpoint of practicality and teamwork—embracing multi-tasking like never before, and letting go, together, of old expectations, routines, and habits which may not match up with this new reality we’re all facing. Talk with your co-workers and supervisor—as well as your kids’ teachers and school administrators--candidly and unapologetically. You are not responsible for this novel coronavirus or its large-scale effects. You are responsible for doing your best to notice and deal with the stress that comes from flux at work and at home, in a way that supports both your business and the fabric of our society. Wise leaders will express mindfulness that “success” looks different right now, and they’ll appreciate your proactive and innovative thinking. This is a moment for acknowledging and fostering dedication and loyalty between your company and not just you, but your whole family.
What’s important to you? How do you want this new work life to go? Having guidelines—values—that you share with the members of your team and your family, will keep you on course. It won’t make your life perfect, and it won’t make work easy, but having a vision will help you make choices, and it will give you both the strength to persevere and the humility to recognize when it’s time to take a different tack.
What has to happen at certain fixed times, that necessarily involves you? Identify and plot those meetings and appointments—including your young child’s school videoconferences or other family commitments--on your calendar, and share it. Respect your co-workers' published schedules and expect the same respect from them. It’s always essential to make charitable assumptions about teammates, but that’s never been more important than it is right now. Nobody is goofing off or wasting company resources just because they’re not under the watchful eye of co-workers—especially in the midst of a global emergency. Trust your team members. We are all doing everything we can to cope with the unique ways in which this trauma affects our individual families. While we’re all in “this” together, remember that “this” looks different for each of us.
What’s timing-flexible? Analyze your overwhelming to-do list, with a fresh perspective. This is a novel and temporary situation. Any new work schedule you devise now is for now, not forever. Which items that you usually check off during typical nine-to-five hours, could you take care of at other times of the day or week? Which recurring tasks could stand a reduction in performance frequency, or could become automated? Are there email templates you could create, or FAQs you could publish?
Consider these ideas that sometimes work for us:
- Maybe it would ease your mind if you tackled an hour’s worth of work before your kids usually wake up. Knowing that you’d already gotten started could then help you focus exclusively on tuning in to your children through play, music, or snuggles once they’re awake, to prime everybody for a somewhat independent work period of concentration and calm.
- What if you aimed to work in one- or two-hour periods broken up by 30-minute pauses for focused family interaction, rather than futilely trying to stick with a more conventional work day of two long work sessions broken up by one long meal break?
- If cooking is a stress point, then does the most preparation-intensive meal really need to be served at the same time each day, and does that moment have to be at the end of what’s likely been an exhausting work period, when you’re scrambling to meet a deadline and you’re low on energy and patience? What if cooking breakfast or lunch were an opportunity for connecting with your child—either by making the meal together, or by offering your help with schoolwork while you prepared the family’s food yourself?
- The notion of working on a weekend rightly offends our healthy desire to balance work time with home life, but during isolation, when extracurricular activities and family events are suspended anyway, think about whether or not it could actually relieve some pressure and create more harmony, if some timing-flexible work or school assignments could be spread across a greater number of days per week, necessitating less work time per day—especially when those weekend days would be more free of meetings with, or interruptions from, co-workers, contractors, clients, or classmates.
- If you’re the only adult in your home, know that you’re not alone even though it feels that way. (Except when it feels like you can never be alone!) Perhaps some of your work time could occur while your toddler is napping, or during periods when a trusted grownup (maybe even a team member’s teenager) could be available to engage your big kid via FaceTime, in a book, art project, or board game.
- Have a nap-resistant young child? Go for a neighborhood drive. After they fell asleep in their car seat maybe you could park and use your laptop or phone to do some work offline, right there in the minivan, uploading it later. (Of course, a Wi-Fi hotspot would really come in handy here. Or sometimes it’s possible to park right next to either your home or a building offering free internet service!)
How can you include and valorize your children in an age-appropriate way, so that they gain some understanding of the new family challenge, and a sense of both responsibility and power? For a child, any opportunity to gain and exercise control helps to balance the lack of control that they have over most of what happens each day. That’s true all the time but especially right now, when once-predictable routines and rituals are changing or gone. We’re not in control of COVID-19, so focus on what is in our power. We can protect ourselves, our families, and our communities by minimizing and slowing the virus’s spread. As a family we can help each other be, and feel, OK, by listing each person’s needs and jobs, and identifying concrete ways of taking care of the home together and supporting one another’s work and wellbeing. We can be thankful that we have each other during this strange time. Encourage your kids to view their efforts as important contributions rather than chores. And invite everybody to adopt a multi-tasking habit of great food servers everywhere: Never leave a room empty-handed; there’s always something you can carry to the kitchen or up the steps.
How can you tweak your home environment to facilitate independent activity? Greater independence leads to increased satisfaction and emotional security—and also fewer interruptions. Changes made in service of this goal would support your family’s strength even if there were no danger or isolation for us to contend with, and they will continue to nurture your children’s growing self-sufficiency and self-reliance once our current crisis has resolved.
- Childproof large areas or rooms, rather than struggling to persuade infants and toddlers to find contentment in small playpens or cribs. (Maybe baby gates could surround your workspace instead of theirs.)
- Stock and store materials and tools for art, cleaning, self care, pet care, and food preparation--that work, and that are your kids’ size(s)--within their reach.
- Keep snack and meal ingredients in a low drawer or cabinet, and in an easy-to-reach area of your refrigerator.
- Set up an indoor area or two for heavy physical exercise, to give your kids a way of getting out of their heads and grounding themselves in their bodies.
- Carve out other small, new spaces for dedicated activities (book nook, craft corner, imagination station, etc.), that offer independent choices which feel special and spark creativity.
How can you set up your home for parallel work? Sometimes it’s their sense that we’re trying to “get away” from them, and not actually our being in a different physical or mental space, that triggers what we perceive as clingy or bothersome behavior in our children.
- Maybe put your laptop in a place where your toddler plays, but up on a shelf or countertop that’s out of their reach. Could you and your big kid work side by side at a table? Try wearing your baby or toddler on your front or back, in a wrap or soft structured carrier, while you work--especially if you’re a parent who’s breastfeeding. Physical closeness can help to regulate a child’s central nervous system, and yours.
- Like other primates, human beings are built to copy and participate—that's how we operate and learn—and when we’re young, we want to do activities that are real and effectual. What’s tricky here, of course, is that our toddlers can’t really do what we’re doing when we type on our computers. But a very simple calculator has buttons to push, with numerals that young children may even recognize or comprehend, and a small display that changes when they push those buttons. An adding machine with a roll of paper, that makes marks, can be even more satisfying for a child to operate.
What can be set up at the end of each day, to be ready for the next? Can worksheets be placed in a clipboard, or apps pulled up on a laptop, or some edge pieces of a puzzle laid out on a low table?
What are some items that your child hasn’t played with or used lately? Less is more. Try to clear some storage space, and then pack away the toys, books, and games that have gone stale. When kids complain that there’s nothing to do, it’s often the case that there’s actually too much—too much to choose from. Young children, especially, thrive on limited choice. When you remove things, you reveal things. Plus! Then—just as you would for a long road trip--you will have just packed a stash of now-fresh stuff, that you can ration out while you’re trying to run a Web meeting.
What are some activities or items that your child loves? Are they visible, on open shelves that your kids can access on their own? Out of sight; out of mind. Are they in spots where they belong and can always be found? Remember how you’ve felt, trying to set up a new workspace, and get comfortable, and find everything you need. Internal order—mental flow--often depends, and thrives, on external order.
What “Yes” responses can you have at the ready for their moments of Emergency Interruption while you’re in the middle of a work period?
- Physically turn away from your work and hug them long enough for you to notice your breathing change.
- Tickle them and then show them your timer that counts down the minutes until your next break.
- Give two or three ideas—including at least one you’re sure they’d enjoy. Maybe they’ll choose the one they love; maybe they’ll push back against your suggestions by making their own choice. Either way, everybody can win.
- “Simon Says” your way through a workout game (that nobody loses).
- Invite your child to tidy up a certain area of your home. Maybe they’ll do that; maybe they’ll start playing with an item from that area. It’s the engagement that matters right now, not the cleaning.
- Challenge them to create a specific vehicle/character/world using open-ended building toys.
- Give them a fun word problem that they can solve and check themselves, using household items.
- Send them on a hunt for something that starts with “ssssssss” or another sound (rather than a letter name).
- Tell them the first sentence of an impromptu story that they can continue writing, or a topic for them to research and report back on.
- Hand them a basket of rags to fold, and remind yourself that it’s about the process, not the product. The idea is to involve them in important home-care work, not to end up with neatly folded rags.
- Ask them to make a list—of red things in your home, of fruits in your refrigerator, of things that are smooth, of words that rhyme with “me,” etc.
- DJ a one-song dance party.
- Ask them to help you count while you take deep breaths.
- Have a staring contest.
- Invite them to go and practice giving a how-to lesson, or arguing persuasively for an action they support, that they can present to the family at bedtime.
- “Draw a picture of. . .”
- Unashamedly hand them the remote.
Have you been able to protect your kids’ concentration when it happens? Or once they get going on schoolwork or another activity, is their groove being stopped? Physician and education researcher Dr. Maria Montessori advised, “Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt [the child], or destroy the activity. . .The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.” It may happen that they’ll become absorbed in an activity right when you were about to take a work break and engage them. Save your invitation for later and seize this moment to attack your list of work, household, or self-care tasks. As timing-flexible a daily rhythm as possible can facilitate flow—for everyone in the family. And maybe noise-canceling headphones could help your kids develop the habit of following their interest and working to the point of their own satisfaction.
- What’s draining your energy?
- What’s bringing you joy?
- What’s pleasantly surprising?
- What’s worrisome?
- Is there a common thread among your children’s interruptions of your work (time of day, previous activity, hunger, tiredness, loneliness for you or a friend, another big feeling, etc.)?
- How closely is reality mirroring the values you created in your #wfhwithkids Visualization?
- What do your family members say? How about your team?
- What other Preparation would you like to try for tomorrow?
- Are your kids and devices all tucked, or plugged, in? It’s time for them—and you—to recharge.