Pro tips for working from home with kids in the house

If you’re among the new legion of people working from home, you may be facing challenges that only weeks ago never would have crossed your mind. As someone who has headquartered in my home office for the better part of the last decade while also being a parent, I know well the unique demands of working from home. Adding kids into the mix just makes it tougher. Even people who usually work from home are stymied by the thought of homeschooling children while trying to keep their career afloat. Here are a few ideas to make the most of a tough situation.

Have some honest conversations.

Working from home has a lot of perks, daytime pajamas included. But it’s not a vacation. You still have to fulfill your obligations to clients and colleagues, and now also have kids looking to you for entertainment, education, and their own endless snack needs. It’s a good time to have some candid discussions about what you can and cannot feasibly do.

That starts with you taking an honest account of what you must do, what you would like to do, and what you are able to do. Then talk to the people this will affect. If you have a partner, now is a good time to figure out if the division of household chores and childcare duties you had before is still fair and workable, particularly if homeschooling is now a part of the mix. Discuss your expectations of each other and what you are hoping to accomplish at work.

Remember to keep your kids appraised of the situation. All the changes in their lives might be making them feel anxious, so the more information and structure you can provide, the better. If they are a bit older, bring them into the conversation. They might have some great ideas about how “the new normal” can work at your house.

Finally, keep the lines of communication open with your co-workers; this is all the more important if you are feeling overwhelmed right now. Perhaps a deadline is not quite as urgent as it was originally presented. Maybe you can cut back hours, or work at different times — such as before the kids wake up or after they go to bed. Fess up that you have kids at home who need you too and create a schedule that helps you balance that.

Create a schedule.

Working from home with kids in the house gives you the flexibility to get creative with the schedule. The reality is that when we work from home, we often don’t take the restful breaks we might actually take at work, say, for a meeting or a conversation with a colleague.

So at home, make lunch a time to spend together; that way, you won’t be tempted to work through your lunch break. Add an “after school” walk into your daily routine to ensure you and the kids get some fresh air and vitamin D (assuming you are still able to go outside, per your local guidelines — though even the strictest of lockdowns usually still allow for a short daily walk).

Posting a schedule that kids can refer to without needing to ask you “What’s next?” will help limit interruptions. You can even use pictures for pre-readers. If they know that “Mommy has to work in the morning but will play with me after lunch” they may be able to stave off some of their questions until later.

Also, know that saying “Go do something” to your kids while you are trying to get stuff done is not going to work. There are too many options and not enough direction to keep them occupied. Too much choice can be a killer. Depending on the age of your kids, they need a little (or a lot) more guidance. Consider making a list of things they could do, and post that list on the refrigerator.

You can explore Instagram timetables that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, with minute by minute agendas or unscheduled ideas. What will work best for your family depends on you and your kids, so try a few options as you settle into your new routine.

Help the kids be more self-sufficient.

Everyone is kind of feeling their way around what will work for them right now, kids included. As stressed as we are, our children are too. They have lost their social networks, daily structure, and regular extracurricular activities. Brainstorm together activities the kids can do on their own and set out the supplies they need to do them. Put some healthy snacks out in a place they can reach so they can help themselves if they feel hungry.

If their schools are doing online learning, make sure they know how to log on. If the teaching is being left up to you, there are a ton of homeschooling suggestions like Scholastic Learn at Home, and there are also several free or inexpensive home learning apps.

Fortunately, many companies have stepped up during the crisis and are streaming digital resources for free. You can help kids find a workout on YouTube, a free book on Audible, or a show on Amazon Prime with an Amazon account. You can find museums to tour virtually, and buy yourself some time while their little minds are expanding.

Set some parameters — for your kids and yourself.

Veteran work-from-homers know one of the toughest parts of working from home is setting boundaries. While there is usually more flexibility than at a “regular” office job, you still have deadlines and project goals to meet — so you’ll need to give the kids some ground rules. Examples that have worked for me and the other parents I spoke with include, “If I am on the phone, you may not interrupt.” Lest a child break your train of thought, a helpful one for writers, tell them that, “If my fingers are typing it means you may not talk to me.”

If you have an office, a closed door or a sticky note on the doorknob can be a good visual indicator that now is a time you can’t be disturbed. Additionally, set limits for yourself, too. When you work from home, there’s a temptation to work all the time. Go ahead and set hours for yourself to work, but also make sure you are setting times for breaks, and establish a quitting time when you will finish for the day. That’s when you need to close your laptop and give your kids your full focus.

Go easy on yourself.

These are unprecedented times and it is scary. Remember that we’re all just trying to do our best and right now that best might not look so hot. A lot of advice you will find centers on giving yourself space to relax. That’s admirable, but if you are relying on maintaining your work to provide your family’s income, the suggestion to take time off is frustrating and maybe even impossible. Likewise, the idea of letting your kids do their own thing for weeks on end can feel mildly negligent.

It will take some experimenting to find the right balance, but in the meantime, your usually high standards might need to loosen a bit. While you learn to work in new ways, your kids are going to gain some independence. See that as the good thing it is. When all this is said and done, you will be able to get back to business as usual. For now, have some compassion for your kids and for yourself. And it might help to recall that you aren’t alone. We’re all in this together.

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