How to work from home with children without losing your mind

To all of you now thrust in to the world of juggling video calls with the needs of the tiny generals that reside in your new workplace – welcome to a hellscape situation that I occupied calmly and rationally for the past few years.

Spoiler. There was nothing calm or rationale about it. There were moments of complete and utter chaos. Massive tantrums, too much screen-time, unrealistic demands and constant snacking. That was just me. Don’t even get me started on what my kids were like.

Somewhat miraculously last year I completed a long-winded PhD working from home. I did this while juggling work for a number of employers on different small projects, and contracting myself out to write tenders and applications for small companies. I did do a few nursing shifts amongst all of that, but the bulk of the past four years for me have been working from home. I was even allowed to work from home for a government department with fabled remote access. That is right – I am special.

Its ok, I know I’m not.

This year I got a real job in a real office with real colleagues that have real conversations, which was a great change from me talking to my rescue dog. I was actually really excited to have a 9 to 5 job, but the COVID-10 situation has seen me return to working from home and video calling everyone. It is familiar turf. This familiarity for both myself and my family is something I have taken a bit for granted. Working from home is different. You need to change the way you work or you are going to go insane, start screaming at your kids and completely drop your bundle. This is hard work, but don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to achieve the unachievable.

The past few weeks I’ve witnessed the challenges people new to this are facing. I’ve also heard some of the questionable advice handed out on how to work from home with small children from people who have clearly never done it before. Working from home is a different beast.

I had a great mentor school me on how to get stuff done done and it worked. My PhD was completed entirely working remotely from home. My two main supervisors living in 400km away. We would meet up in person once or twice a year, but I was very much left to get on with it with two small children as my research associates. So now, I pontificate to you from my ivory tower of successful mastery of working from home and wish to bestow my five best tips for working from home with small children. Gather around the fire:

1. Consider how much actual work you do when in your regular office and ensure you do that. Don’t kid yourself that you are steaming away in productivity for eight hours every day. You never chat with your colleagues? Share a story from home? Check your phone? Stare blankly at the screen wishing the day would end?

Focus on the work you have to do, the meetings you have to be in and the time you have to be available – and nail it. Consider using Pomodoro technique to really focus. Don’t kid yourself. If you’re surfing the internet, get back to work or focus on your kids. Don’t waste time in between. Be productive.

2. You can’t work your regular hours so give up trying to. Don’t listen to your HR department when they advise you not to log on “before work time”. With small children around – you need to make hay while the sun shines, or in this case, when it doesn’t. If you can squeeze a couple of hours of administration before they really want your attention – get it done.

This links really closely to point 1. Be available for calls during your hours and regularly check your emails, but get your work done at the times of the day you can. Not necessarily between 9 and 5. Be flexible.

I recommend fingerless gloves in winter.

3. Don’t get worried if your kids wander in to your video conferencing meeting. Or start screaming. Or break something. Because you’re already video-conferencing like a pro, your microphone isn’t on, so no-one else knows that Jane just smashed a vase over Henry’s head. You have time to calmly let everyone know you you just need to check on something before sneaking off to assess the bleeding.

Everyone is doing this together. Everyone has kids wandering around doing things they shouldn’t after they’ve got bored of Netflix. Everyone is going to have a child wander in to shot mid-meeting. Just acknowledge it and move on. It is not unprofessional. This is not how things were. Stop trying to make it like the way it was. Be adaptive.

This family blazed a trail for us. Make the most of their hard work.

4. Don’t forget about your routines. If you are going to get admin tasks done early, you still need to get up, get dressed, have some breakfast and set yourself mentally for the day.

The day might look and feel a lot different than it used to, but if you’re still in your pyjamas at lunch time, you’re in trouble. There are very few jobs that require you to be in pyjamas, if you aren’t B1 or B2, you are kidding yourself. You are still going to work (mentally), so you still need to get ready (mentally). Getting dressed is a part of that. Be professional.

5. Above all else, you are a parent. Your angry little co-worker needs a lot more love and attention than your regular ones (hopefully) do. There are things that are more important than work, and provided you are committed to being available during your work hours, getting your work done and maintaining professionalism – there are times that it is more important that your connect with your children than finish an email.

If you can provide some quality time for your kids between bursts of productivity, they are more likely to leave you alone when you need to be left alone for the state-wide video conference. Be kind to yourself if you’ve spent more time than budgeted giving them attention. They need it at this time. Kids are picking up on our stress and anxiety.

You can’t work in the same ways you have in your office – but why do you have to? Why do you have to be at a computer from 9 until 5 at home? Did you ever ACTUALLY do that in the office? No coffees? No wandering up to the photocopy? No meetings that could’ve been an email? Be open to your kids coming and having a chat to you because they are your most important stakeholder – and they will be there well after this situation, and this job. Be a parent.

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