The New Normal for Parents Working With Kids At Home
Sarah Greesonbach | 4 min read
Practically overnight, COVID-19 sent the majority of knowledge workers home to manage their workday, their stress levels, and a pandemic — and about 40% of them have to balance all of this while having kids under the age of 18 at home.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution for suddenly being thrust into a stressful situation with conflicting priorities. The simple truth is that, for the next few weeks or months, work is going to require flexibility, patience and — above all — a sense of humor. That said, there’s a lot you can do as a parent to improvise and experiment with how you run your day to see if there are pockets of time you can work stress-free.
For parents of school-aged children who are suddenly “working from home with kids,” here are five things to try:
1. Adjust your expectations
“Unspoken expectations lead to anger,” is a parenting and marriage adage that applies directly to the COVID-19 WFHWK situation. If you went from 40+ hour weeks in the office with daycare to hour-long spurts of work in between caring for children, that’s a perfect recipe for resentment and frustration — and the only thing you have the power to change right now are your expectations.
If you haven’t yet, take a minute to write down or think about your expectations for yourself, your team, and your workload. Then consider what’s actually possible given the demands of your family right now. Often realizing your current setup isn’t working is the first step in figuring out one that does work.
2. Start the day with focused family time
It’s an unproven child development law that your children can happily entertain themselves for hours — until you try to pick up an electronic device or focus on something important. Left unchecked, this can lead to a frustrating and distracting cycle of picking up and putting down your phone, computer, or tablet as you try to get a task or two checked off your list in between episodes of Bluey.
Some seasoned parents are able to minimize this cycle by starting the day with uninterrupted, intentional family time. A solid 15-30 minute session of 1:1 playing, reading, and tickling can help “fill the bucket” for attention so that your kids are willing to find something else to do when you start typing away at your keyboard.
3. Use time blocking to reduce schedule stress
Another source of stress, even in a normal workday in the office, is switching between tasks. Even though changing your focus might only require seconds or minutes to adjust, studies estimate these small amounts of time can accumulate to take up as much as 40% of your productive time — and you definitely don’t have that to spare when trying to work from home with kids.
Instead, try using the time blocking technique to assign certain tasks to certain times of day or days of the week. For example, if you have a significant amount of control over your schedule, use a calendar scheduling program to only book calls with coworkers or subordinates on certain days of the week, like Tuesday and Thursday, or certain times of day, like 12-3PM in your time zone. This allows you to get off the productivity treadmill of preparing for a call, taking a call, attempting to get to another task, and then getting back on a call — all while managing whatever is going on with your children in the background.
4. Trade off working hours
For many people, a universal work from home policy means they’re suddenly sharing their office space with their real spouse, not their work spouse. If you’re in a situation where you have two parents working from home, consider flexing your schedule to trade off uninterrupted working times.
For example, one partner might be able to negotiate with their team to work core hours of 6:30AM-12PM, and the other partner might be able to work 12:30PM-6PM. It’s not a perfect working day, but 5.5 hours of uninterrupted time to focus may be more than any of your coworkers are getting in their own homes.
5. Ditch the computer and go old school
Knowledge work is practically synonymous with digital tools – just about everything you need to do takes place on a computer, tablet or smartphone. But remember that unproven law about electronics being irresistible to children? And the frustration and distraction that comes from trying to work with a child pulling at your screen? You can circumvent this for short periods of time by pulling out good old fashioned pen and paper.
Pen and paper won’t work for every task, of course. But if your job function involves writing, brainstorming, or data analysis, you can easily add a handful of 20-30 minute working sessions by printing out what you need and working side-by-side with your kids as they color, draw, play with playdough, or do other age-appropriate activities.
Remember, You’re Not Just Working From Home
Nothing about life under stay-at-home orders is easy. Because as many sympathetic thought leaders have realized over the past few weeks, “You’re not working at home – you’re at your home during a crisis and trying to work.” While doing good work and supporting your team continues to be a priority, it is now one of several priorities you must balance in order to manage your mental health and maintain high performance in the long-term.
BY SARAH GREESONBACH
Sarah is a writer for Wisetail. By analyzing and condensing cutting-edge research and data, she helps L&D professionals develop their instincts and arrive at actionable insights for employee engagement and training. She loves to consider the possibilities of humanizing, organizing, and minimalizing all things HR.