Even if you’ve worked from home for years and have the perfect setup, your plan probably never included family members—much less kids.
With social distancing helping to slow the spread of coronavirus, many families are suddenly finding that not only do they have to work from home, but their kids are at home too. From daycare to colleges, families are learning how to work and play together all day, every day.
I actually started FlexJobs when I was pregnant with my first child, and then had my second son 20 months later. So even the roots of our company are based on working from home through all of the stages of parenting. Today, the majority of our team are parents, and we all work from home. We really do get it, and we know it’s not easy all of the time. And under the stressful situation right now, it’s even less so.
Even if you’ve worked from home for years and have the perfect work-at-home setup, your plan probably never included family members clamoring to be online at the same time (or playing another round of Uno in the middle of the day). And since everyone might be at home unexpectedly for weeks, you need a new work-at-home plan—fast.
Try to come up with the best plan you can, and acknowledge it won’t likely go as smoothly as anyone hopes, but we’re all in this together and helping the common good by staying safe and healthy.
1. Communicate expectations
Communication is, of course, an essential part of any job. In person or remote, letting your boss and your team know what you’re working on and what you’re struggling with can help make your job a little easier.
But, when you add kids to the mix, suddenly work isn’t so easy. Make sure you proactively communicate with your employer that you’ve got kids at home and that you can’t guarantee every conversation will be interruption-free. With any luck, you can work flexibly so you can help your kids when they need it and work when they’re occupied.
Also, make sure that when you’re speaking with anyone—inside or outside your company—you give them a heads up at the beginning of the call. This way, when an argument about the remote control gets a little heated, no one is surprised at the ruckus.
2. Assess your resources for help with childcare
Do you have anyone who can help with your kids on-site—partner, older kids, family, trusted neighbors?
Or virtually? Think of friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, babysitters, teachers. These people are amazing resources because you can use them to arrange virtual playdates for your kids. They can talk, read, play games, sing, do dances, and much more.
3. Plan activities that don’t require supervision
Different activities will apply to different age groups, depending on your schedule and the age of your children.
- Naps, swings, bouncy chairs
- Shows or videos such as Baby Einstein or whatever you trust
- Listen to musical songs
Toddlers through elementary:
- Favorite shows and/or related online games. PBS has many options.
- Educational games and apps
If they’re older:
- Reading, writing stories
- Educational, positive, or inspirational shows or movies: Nature, America’s Got Talent, funniest home videos, etc.
- School platforms
- Minecraft or activities that keep them socializing online with their friends.
4. Prioritize your schedule
Look at what you have that is most important to not be interrupted for and aim to schedule your most engaging/reliable activities for the kid(s) to be on their own during that time.
If you’ve got a partner, the odds are pretty good that person is home with you. And, if you both work, you’ve both got the same problem. How and where do you get work done when there’s not enough space and too many people?
Depending on your flexibility and your partner’s flexibility, you might consider switching to shift work. Maybe you work for four hours (uninterrupted) in the morning while your partner watches the kids, then you switch. You watch the kids in the afternoon while your partner works. Then, when the kids are in bed, you both get a little more work done.
If you’re a single parent, clearly communicate expectations to both your kid(s) and your employer. You’ll need flexibility from your employer to address the needs of any children, so make sure that you’re proactive and you let team members know what to expect from you. Carve out hours of the day when you’re available for calls or virtual meetings, and be sure to let children know what to expect from you as well.
5. Set boundaries
Once you’ve told your employer what’s up, you’ll need to tell your kids what’s up, and that means establishing boundaries. Start with a conversation that working from home means “working.” As much as you or they might like, you can’t hang out.
Have a family meeting and explain how work works. Let your kids know that you have certain tasks that you must accomplish, and you can’t take frequent breaks to help them. Explain that when the door to your office is closed, they have to knock before they come in. And, if there’s a “do not disturb” sign on the door, that means they can’t knock on the door, slide a note under the door, or text you with any questions.
Also, explain that once you’re done with whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll come out and check on them. But until that happens, they need to either wait for you or solve the problem themselves.
6. Reward good behavior
Establishing boundaries is just the start. You also need to acknowledge and reward good behavior. For example, if you’ve got younger kids that require a lot of attention before you start a meeting, let them know what’s happening and that you can’t be interrupted. Help them start a quiet puzzle or coloring project, and let them know that you’ll check back shortly. Steer kids toward more calm, relaxing activities, as well as nonviolent, as those can amplify bad behavior and frustration. For example, be very selective with the video games that are and aren’t permitted.
If your kids do interrupt you, stay calm. You may need to stop what you’re doing and shoo them away or even deal with the problem. But, once you’ve handled the situation, and finished your work, have another discussion with your kids. Explain to them that when they leave you alone, it helps you do a better job, so you need their help so you can do the best work possible.
When your kids don’t interrupt you, reward them. Give them lots of praise, and thank them for their help. Spend some extra time with them and read a book or play a game. While older children may not appreciate the gesture as much, they might appreciate extra video game time.
Yes, these rewards sound remarkably similar to bribes. But working from home with kids sometimes means you do what you have to do to maintain harmony and keep the peace. Don’t worry. We’ll never tell!
7. Take breaks
If your kids have schoolwork to do, that’s helpful. They’ll be occupied for some of the time they’re at home. But school probably won’t last all day. And if your kids don’t have school, you probably can’t arrange playdates or excursions. In either case, you’ll need to find creative ways to occupy and keep an eye on your kids.
Start with scheduling frequent breaks in your day. Instead of sitting down and working on a task for three hours, break up your day a bit more. Work for 30 or 50 minutes, then take a 10-minute break to hang out with your kids. You can help them with tasks, or you can have a 10-minute dance party to get the wiggles out and to energize you.
8. Break out the box
Take some time one evening and create activity boxes. Fill the boxes with activities that the kids can do on their own. Create “theme” boxes and label them, so the kids have some choices. Art projects, glitter projects, or even creating a family tree are all possibilities. Just make sure they’re age-appropriate and contain activities that require minimal help from you.
9. Have a Plan B
Eventually, though, your kids might get bored of the boxes (or you run out of supplies). Have a back-up activity jar ready to go! When the kids are bored, have them pull a slip from the jar and do the activity. You’ll need to set ground rules ahead of time (like, no matter what, you have to do the activity), but it’s a great way to keep kids occupied.
And while you could fill the jar with activities such as “clean your room,” that probably won’t go over very well. Consider things like Legos for building a fort.
10. Stress less
During “normal” times, you might monitor screen time and even limit it. But working from home with kids during an emergency is different. While you probably don’t want them playing video games for weeks at a time, there’s nothing wrong with letting them have a little more screen time than usual.
When you’re working from home with your kids unexpectedly, you may have to let it go. Explain to them that this is a special circumstance, and it won’t last forever. And when you’re done with work for the day, turn off the screens and switch to analog entertainment. You may not want to play board games with your family after working all day, but everyone needs some nondigital entertainment after staring at screens all day.
11. Get creative
Along those same lines, there may be times when you have to think creatively about where you work. If you don’t have an office, what do you do when you need some privacy during a client or work meeting? Ditto if you have an office but also have a partner who needs to use said office. Can you use the basement (even if it’s unfinished), take calls in your car (where you can lock the doors!), or work from a walk-in or large closet?
Any place with internet access can act as an office during an emergency. A bedroom is your best bet. But, depending on your situation, that may not be possible.
Not just for pandemics
Even if it’s not coronavirus that closes school and work, there are plenty of other reasons why you might suddenly find yourself working from home with kids during an emergency. It could be a blizzard, excessive heat, or even a power outage.
Although it will likely be uncomfortable and difficult to at least some degree (and maybe a big one), keep in mind that working from home right now—even as hard as it can be with kids—can be the difference that keeps millions of people safe and our organizations in business. It’s worth the challenge, and we’re all in this together.