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.

Alone. Tortured. Afraid. What it is like to work from home?

Alone. Tortured. Afraid. Staring meekly into the abyss. Waves of self doubt and self pity. A strange stain on your tracksuit pants of an unknown origin. Occasional flourishes of activity. What are the challenges of working from home? Surely it’s just a productivity gold mine.

Firstly, you save time on your commute. The time it takes me to get from my breakfast (excluding the school run) to a position of potential productivity is the fraction of the time most people spend in traffic. Without the associated road rage. I’ve seen some wild road rage in my time – including one time a very upset young man punched me through the sun-roof of my mother-in-law’s car in a paroxysm of rage. A friend of mine told me he used to play recorder at the lights to calm his road rage. Once I stopped laughing, I admitted it could be calming. Maybe.

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Once I’m there, in the zone, wired in – sometimes, just sometimes, magic happens. The words flow from my fingers. Coding analysis flows forth like a stream. Ideas form and are expressed with ease. It feels glorious. I am a PhD student, so there are moments, working away that I really feel like I’m not a complete fraud and that my ideas might actually be worth putting forward in to the world.

These moments are precious – and now that both of my children at school three days a week – they are starting to come more and more regularly. However, there are times that despite your focus, someone or something breaks you from the zone, losing your thread. Disastrous. Sometimes it can be something really small or subtle that drags you away. 7c3aFIl.gif

Working from home means that I miss out on the collegiality and support that students or workers based at a university sometimes take for granted. That lack of being surrounded by individuals who are doing something similar to myself, can be really difficult to manage. You don’t all have to be sexual health PhD students to support each other – just the fact that you are working in research means over coffee or lunch you can have a supportive conversation.

Those idle moments that seem simple enough, are really quite galvanising in continuing your work. When you’re at home – those moments don’t happen. There is no idle chat over coffee about how it’s all going. There isn’t another researcher with a similar methodology to bounce ideas off. There is no-one there to reassure you that what you are doing is actually worth it, that you aren’t just wasting yours and everybody’s time. Those moments of success, when you’ve finally ground something out – after hours of toil, to produce a real, tangible piece of academic gold; are celebrated alone. Sometimes I tell my kids. They’re supportive and patient, but they’re under seven, so you really are out there alone.

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I try and get myself to as many conferences and seminars as possible to make up for those moments. I don’t have a scholarship, and don’t perform my research as part of my direct role with my employer – so unless I snare a conference bursary, I have to self-fund my attendance. This has been the way for many conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, excluding my School’s support to attend SexRurality, a Healthway grant to attend the AHPA national conference, and a bursary from Curtin to attend the SiREN symposium. Amazing support that I am truly thankful for receiving.

Part of working alone means you really have to connect more than that – so other conferences have been critical, but costly exercises in chasing collegiality and support. Even conferences based in Perth provide the challenge of travel – it’s a 400km drive one-way to get there. Its a drive I do every month, but it takes half a day of travel time each way – which means not being able to work an extra few days (whether paid or PhD) and missing time with family. That means a two day symposium is a four day proposition, with the need for three nights accommodation. Not doing this means further isolation, and really is part of the trade-off of living rural.

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Another significant challenge of working from home, is the massive pull of other home-based labour activities. This is sometimes known as procrastination. Or laziness – depending on the activity. Doing loads of washing; cooking dinner and baking muffins for lunches during the week; installing a new car stereo; and performing back-burning of your bush block are all noble activities that equal procrastination. They need to happen at sometime, but could probably have waited for you to finish your insider-research paper.

You could probably add writing a blog in here too – but I maintain it gets the creative writing juices flowing before the academic stuff has to happen. A bit like a nice entrée before you attack your main meal.

Watching Game of Thrones recaps; having a stress nap; or reading everything you can find in the house that in no way relates to your PhD, in my opinion, comes in under the lazy tag. Resisting the pull of either of these when there is no-one there to ask you why you are on the couch can be grueling.

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So – what do you do? You have to keep working away, head down, searching for gold. There are times that isolation, both physically and professionally can take its toll – so you need to explore ways to reconnect. I follow as many PhD students as I can on Twitter, and contribute to #phdchat as much as feasible (with being lazy or procrastinating). I use other forms of social media and my blog to get things out there in forums that they may not have – which has been great for clearing ideas from my brain, that perhaps a solid conversation over lunch with a colleague would have.

I search for opportunities to attend conferences and seminars. I rarely video conference into seminars, as VC options are more targeted to people attached to work places, using workplace platforms and services. If you are a floating entity such as myself, you may not be able to have access – or your internet connection at home may not be up to the challenge. That, and everyone ignores you when you VC in.

I try and keep my procrastination to a minimum – but when it happens, I embrace it with vigour. When you are working alone and isolated – self-loathing isn’t going to help anyone. Beating yourself up for not achieving as much as you could’ve won’t help you get more done tomorrow. I did trial a procrastination avoidance app, that blocks “time-wasting” websites, but it would sometimes over correct itself and block something I actually NEEDED. You could log in, plead your case to the algorithm, sacrifice a dove and get back on with what you were doing – but it really broke your flow. And those moments that it all clicks – then you run with it as far as you can, you can’t be searching for a dove or dipping in to the well of self pity. Those are the moments that the gold appears and it all seems worth it, you have to be ready.

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