Writer and editor
Working from home is tricky enough with all those distractions that can keep you away from your desk. There’s the laundry to fold, the cereal bowls to clear and always another coffee to make. But what if the kids are at home too? That’s one distraction too many. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the unthinkable: millions of children are off school and you’ve been told to work from home. How can this ever work? If this is you, we explain how to make your household function seamlessly.
British nurseries, preschools and schools are still open for the children of key workers, vulnerable children and those whose parents simply can’t afford to stop working, but the rest are staying at home to try and halt the spread of coronavirus. Let’s not pretend this is an easy gig. Remember the BBC News interview that went viral featuring Professor Robert Kelly and his children, who gatecrashed with impeccable comic timing? This is happening in video meetings around the world right now.
The amount of work you can do with your children around depends on several factors:
If your role involves working 9-5 on a structured schedule, including meetings and phone calls, you’re going to struggle. However, if your company has a more flexible work culture, it’s much easier to work and juggle home life.
If you work part-time, there’s more wriggle room to fit your hours in than for a full-time employee.
Your ability to work from home goes down exponentially the more children you have.
If your children are babies or teenagers, it’s much more doable. Babies nap and you can pop them down on a mat to play by your desk. Teenagers are pretty self-sufficient and don’t want you around much anyway.
Toddlers are tricky—blink and you end up with crayon on the walls and a fruit bowl full of half-eaten bananas. Preschoolers and primary age children need you to do simple tasks for them, which come as constant requests—I need a biscuit, undo my Elsa dress, find my sock, help me, I’m stuck in the washing machine, can you get the Play-doh out of my hair… you get the picture.
Julie, a team manager for a financial services company, and Coley, a software development engineer, have three girls aged eight, two and a half and 13 months. Julie says the youngest is by far the hardest to manage. “The baby’s just started walking and she gets everywhere,” she said. “We put a stairgate up in the hall outside the office for the two little ones so they are safe or we’d find them under the table, everywhere!”
This isn’t necessarily age dependent, says Elaine, a health and wellness coach and mum of three. “My 11-year-old is perfect, he gets up early, gets on with his schoolwork, he’s a real peacekeeper and leaves me to it, whereas my teenager needs a lot more guidance,” she said.
Face it, you’re not going to do a normal day’s work in the same way as you would at home alone or in the office. The only way to be productive is to get creative, so try the following:
If your children are older, they will have homework. Julie maximises this time. “I have put my eldest daughter’s desk in my home office so she can sit and do homework, draw or read while I get on with my working day,” she said.
Regular office hours will not work in this scenario. Mother-of-two Jayne, who works for an IT training company, says: “I often pick up my hours in the evenings or start earlier the next day. I work weekends if I have to. The only thing is, there’s no downtime, which can get very tiring.”
Work to your strengths, says Julie. “I often work late at night. It’s peaceful, there’s no pressure and I can just get on with it.”
If there are two adults in the house, share the load. If you’re both working from home, split the time equally—one starts early while the other works late, or help each other when one has an important call or meeting. “I have about six hours of calls a day,” said Julie. “Coley covers me because his work is more flexible. We both work early or late and dip in and out whenever we can.”
If your other half works out of the house, then they can take over when they get home. “My husband’s very good, he’ll come home and cook dinner for everyone while I work,” said Jayne.
Children struggle to understand why you aren’t 100% present even though you’re at home. “Why won’t you play with me, Mummy?” can really tug at your heartstrings. Be honest: explain your work, why it is important, point out the positives of remote working… and offer incentives for good behaviour. This doesn’t have to be screen time or sweets. Perhaps offer to do something fun together after you’ve finished.
Try working in the kitchen or even in the playroom so you’re physically present. Do whatever you have to do! Gradually, Mummy or Daddy on a laptop will be a normal sight. Before the coronavirus, Coley minded his children every Friday while he worked. “I wouldn’t get a full day’s work done but I could plan it into my week,” he said. “The baby has a two-hour nap and the toddler potters around. It’s like having someone chatting in the office, she’s happy sitting up next to you playing.
“They do cop on. They know you’re busy, that you’re there but not quite available. They are much more demanding of Julie when she’s trying to work, but it’s different rules with me!”
For Jayne, the older her two children get, the more they accept her work structure. “They are eight and 11 now, and they’re very good about it,” she said. “They are sensible. If I have to make a call, I have to make a call.”
An increasing number of us are suddenly working from home and having to juggle family life. Tolerance is higher than you think! Your toddler wandering in while you’re in a Zoom meeting to ask you to empty his potty isn’t the end of your career.
If you don’t get everything done on your task list, remember, this is a learning curve for everyone. Your employer knows what you’re facing - they might be in the same position too - and the system is a work in progress.
Finally, desperate times call for desperate measures. If the toddler’s screaming on the floor because you cut his toast wrong, your tweenagers are fighting over a fancy-dress outfit and you’ve an important call to make, give them an early dose of Netflix. Everyone’s a winner.
Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to receive our articles every week.
Writer and editor