Working from home with kids
Thanks to Jaimie Hutchison, Lifespan & Family Services Coordinator at Michigan State University’s WorkLife Office, for this helpful advice!
As colleges and universities take precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19, many higher ed employees are suddenly working from the same spaces where their kids are playing and learning. Now, it’s time for us all to dig deep and practice a level of flexibility that we’ve never had to exercise before. Higher ed employees should set realistic expectations, show compassion for each other and ourselves, and know that everyone is trying their best in these trying circumstances.
Here’s how to make the best of working remotely…while managing your energetic new “coworkers:”
Children see us as parents first. When we are home and they are home, they will demand a lot of our time. We can use best practices and strategies to be as effective as we can, but it is not going to be the same as if we did not have children to attend to and care for. This is perhaps the ultimate test of work-life fit.
Have a talk at home
Adults and children old enough to understand should sit down and talk about what each person can do to help other people. Talk about boundaries and how this is a new situation for most of us. If there is more than one caregiver who is able to be with the children, discuss how to divide your time in order to each attend to your responsibilities at home and at work.
Practice some drills
To minimize the risk of outbursts during conference call, Zoom meetings, or remote teaching, practice how-tos. It is not guaranteed, but it is worth a try. Example: If your parent is on the phone when you walk into the designated workspace, do you run up and talk to them, or do you have a seat and wait quietly until they finish the call?
As mentioned previously, children will always see you as a parent first. Setting boundaries about when you are working is a positive step. Create a visual sign that shows you are working. Some people have signs up that say, “Stop, in a meeting” or they have a red cup out, meaning “do not disturb unless it is crucial.” Others may be on their laptop in shared family spaces, so they wear a baseball hat when they are working, which means “please do not disturb.” This will help with children old enough to notice the symbol and who can be independent, cared for by an older child in the home, etc.
If you have younger children who don’t understand boundaries yet…
Take advantage of sleep time. For those with younger children, sharing “on” and “off” times with any other trusted adult, when possible, is key. Working around nap times and baby’s sleep schedule can be essential to accomplishing work.
Offer 30 minutes of a board game, time on the tablet, a walk around the block, or other incentives to reward good effort for what may be a very new experience where everyone in the family is working together in a different way.
Block out the noise
If you have a quiet space where you can work, you will be less distracted. If not, or if you need to keep a close eye on things, consider wearing noise-cancelling headphones. This can help you focus and still be present when you need to be.
Free your hands
Babywearing can be a great way to keep your baby close and rocked, while your hands are free to work.
Splitting our attention between children and work is a real challenge, depending on the age and needs of your kids. Here are some possible solutions:
Do your kids go to sleep early?
It is quite possible that you will be able to focus most after bedtime. Consider working with your supervisor to flex your schedule to attend to emails and work after 7 or 8 at night after the children are sleeping. You may get more done then due to having the time and concentration to focus.
Are you an early riser?
Maybe before the children get up is the best time to work. Consider getting up early to get some things planned for the day before the children are awake.
Are your children very persistent about wanting your time? Take a break and give it to them. These are unusual and challenging times; you have to prioritize each person in your home as stress levels are higher than ever for all of us.
Work on the weekend
This is a time to consider every flexible option for work. Do we need to work less hours each day for seven days? Do we have time on the weekends that may allow us to get things done? This falls within the category of flexible work. Consider what is best for you and communicate your needs with your supervisor.
Create a to-do list
Prioritize what really needs to be done for work. What are the critical tasks that need to be done? How and when are you able to do these things?
Be compassionate to yourself
This may be a time when our children have more screen time than usual, or where we take a step back from being so accessible to everyone. We are all human. At the end of the day, we are all doing our best.
Keep access to technology top-of-mind
Some employees may not have internet access or the technology (e.g., noise-cancelling headphones) to work from home. Having communication about what the needs of the staff are, and what is realistic to accomplish, is key.
Communicate with your staff on what the priorities are and keep in mind that for many parents who have children at home, there will be extra demands on them. Please do your best to be flexible during this stressful time.
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