05/04/2020 Jeni Kramer

Full-time chaos: balancing kids and remote work

During the ever-expanding economic and social turmoil of the COVID-19 outbreak, those of us with the ability to work from home know how incredibly lucky we are. But for working parents, there are many days where that luck can feel a bit like complete and utter bedlam. Attempting to balance work, childcare, homeschooling and household responsibilities (amid a collective societal feeling of generalized anxiety and uncertainty about the future, no less) is a herculean task that tests even the strongest among us.  

Many parents were accustomed to, at most, an occasional work-from-home day with our children due to an illness or school closure. But the reality of working remotely every single day alongside our kids requires a fairly steep learning curve for most. While we’ve yet to meet a parent who’s truly nailed it (if you have, please, TELL US YOUR SECRET!), there are some fairly simple strategies that can help. Here are 5 tips to keep things in balance (or something resembling balance):

Create a schedule (and actually stick to it).

If you’re a go-with-the-flow type, you may be tempted to approach this new scenario with a similarly relaxed attitude. But there is potential, like never before, for things can easily turn from loose and flexible to a no-holds-barred chaos. When each person in the house has a competing to-do list, managing the days will require some proactive planning to ensure everyone gets what they need. 

A strict schedule that replicates that of a normal school/work day will get everyone in the right frame of mind. Reserve time for dressing, getting ready and eating breakfast before diving in to work and school tasks. Then, look holistically at the day to determine any pockets of time that can be devoted solely to work. Building in freeplay, outdoor time, and screen time for the kids can help create more opportunities for focused time. And never underestimate the power of a good nap! Many parents are able to reach astounding levels of productivity while their kids indulge in an afternoon snooze. 

If there are other adults in your house, determine how you can switch off and share responsibilities. Having one “on duty” parent that’s the go-to for school and childcare needs allows the other person to work relatively undisturbed. 

Many parents find it helpful to get the kids involved in the planning. They can participate in creating a rewards system for completed tasks or assignments, or creating an “I’m bored” list with pre-planned activities they can refer to as free time becomes “there’s nothing to doooooooo!” time. They can also help pre-portion healthy foods so they can be accessed independently at snack time. Giving them some agency in the situation creates buy-in, which any parent can tell you is invaluable. 

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. (Then communicate some more)

Until recently, the work-from-home status quo was to do everything possible to conceal any hint of the chaos around you in the name of “professionalism.” That was then. Now we suddenly find ourselves in a different era, with radically different expectations – where the very meaning of the term “professionalism” is shifting in response to our collective circumstance. Our current situation calls for increased transparency when it comes to those 20 flaming chainsaws you’re juggling as you attempt to navigate your new role as employee/teacher/daycare provider/short order cook/crisis manager. 

It is critical to be honest with your manager about the obstacles you’re facing in this new remote work environment. Let them know up front if there are times you can be deeply focused on work or available for collaboration, and when family obligations require you to split focus or step away altogether. We’re conditioned to strive to do it all and make it look easy, but that simply isn’t possible right now. And a lack of transparency about obstacles you’re facing can get in the way of productive conversations about potential solutions.

Boundaries are everyone’s friend.

This shift to home-based work and school can be confusing and frustrating for kids of all ages. Home is an environment where they may be accustomed to your undivided attention and availability. It’s important to have ongoing conversations about how things have changed, and how new expectations apply to everyone. Clearly lay out when you are and are not available, and define what constitutes an interruptible emergency. (Speaking from personal experience, failing to set those parameters can result in a conference call interrupted because someone “saw a weird bug” outside.)

Visual cues are the easiest way to reinforce these boundaries. If you can designate a room or space where work happens, this will help kids easily see when you are preoccupied. A stop/go sign indicating when you can be interrupted has been successful for many parents. If you are able to work in a separate room, lock doors when possible – the temptation to override even the most  obviously visual cues can occasionally become too much to resist!

Stand. Breathe. Repeat as needed.

If you’re lucky enough to get into a groove during your work-from-home day, it can be tough to tear yourself away. But taking regular breaks does wonders for your mood and productivity. A good rule of thumb is to take a 10 minute break for every hour of focused work. Get up, move around, chat with your kids and give them a hug – the rejuvenating effects will be well worth it! 

Outside of breaks to check in and attend to your children, it’s critical that you build in some solo downtime as well. A walk, some quick stretching, meditation, a podcast, a chapter of that book you started ages ago – all of these things will help you maintain a feeling of balance in the midst of this chaotic time. Prioritize these solo breaks and do whatever you can to make sure they actually happen.

Speaking of self-care…

Trying to inhabit and be successful at these new and changing roles is frustrating, stressful and physically exhausting work. You need stamina to get through it! Eating nutritious food, staying hydrated, managing stress and prioritizing sleep can all ensure you’re up for whatever challenges the days throw at you. Though it may feel self-indulgent to prioritize self-care in a moment where everyone is competing for your attention, remember that your entire family will benefit from being around a well-rested, healthy version of you. It’s hard to parent, work and teach effectively when you’re run down. Not to mention, during a pandemic, carefully guarding our physical health is even more important. Giving our immune systems every advantage we possibly can is just good policy.

Just remember, every family is different and there truly is no one-size-fits-all solution – you’ll get through this in the way that works for you. But these tools have been tried and tested by other working parents, and adopting any or all of them just might make the struggle a little less difficult for you. “We’re in this together” has come to feel like a bit of a cliche, but in this situation it is absolutely true! Challenges that once made us feel isolated have become our collective reality. Increased visibility into the obstacles faced by working parents may shape the way we all work, long after the pandemic has passed.