Working from home…with children

August 24, 2020

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”

For some reason, this USPS motto is sticking in my head right now. Perhaps it is following too much US politics or maybe it’s because the refrain I repeat each day as I find my way down the path of managing a growing business and a lively family – during the summer, in a global pandemic.

I am pretty sure a lot of you will relate, so in today’s Rise Up post I hope you find useful information here. For those of you without children at home, please feel free to laugh along as I manage the pitfalls and [hopefully] prevail victoriously on the other side. As they say, we are all in this together.

Today’s child psychologists will tell you one thing. Your friends will tell you another. And your parents will tell you you’re doing it wrong.  Working from home while raising children is as tough a job as they come because it merges two full-focus roles that were never meant to merge into one. Think Frank Gehry design where ‘given circumstances meets unanticipated materializations’. Think cupcake decorator standing next to a jackhammer. Think juggling flaming knives while you attempt to create a breviloquent brief for your client. The reality is, young home-office “colleagues” can present a unique set of challenges to running a company.

Let’s talk distractions. One of the biggest issues is that there is never any quiet. Never. Ever. It’s the little things. The constant chatter, the chirpy songs on TV, the pinging and pow’ing of gaming consoles. And as any parent can attest, anything, at any time, can become a drumstick… crayons, coloured pencils, the remote, chopsticks … rattling out a seemingly unending staccato.  Then there is helping someone remember where their game charge cord was last, and answering questions like “why is the crust crustier than the rest of the loaf…?”

This is daily life with kids.

But here is the thing: distractions are always a part of working life that must be managed. A University of California study showed that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from a distraction.  Having to stop – manage the distraction – commit to restarting, regroup, reorganize your mind and possibly your space again, and then actually restart – now where was I? Personally, I’ve always liked to view distractions as an opportunity to practice my distraction recovery skills and strategies. They are a very valuable group of “muscles” that require regular exercise to remain strong. Training your brain to react to distraction in a positive way, like it’s an accomplishment rather than an inconvenience or an annoyance, is an essential component of building resilience.

So how am I dealing?

Working from home, as many of us do especially now, requires discipline. I am of the view that acknowledging the realities of sharing your workday with your family is absolutely essential to both a productive workday and a happy home – whether you are working in an office or at home, during a pandemic or not. Here is a list of things to which my wife and I are committed. I welcome any stories or suggestions you have to add.

  • Setting expectations –  And be serious about them. There are no excuses. No gimmes. Always follow through – if you offer up a movie as a reward for being quiet during an afternoon video conference, or while writing a business plan – you have to sit there and watch Harry Potter and pop that popcorn. Bust out the emergency stash of movie candy. Make it special. Make it memorable. Conversely, if you deal up a consequence, you must follow through. There goes that iPad or your turn at the wheel of the remote control.
  • Give everybody the chance to be successful.  Get everyone on the same page. To do this, you need to communicate your expectations and get their buy-in. If you expect the dishes to be scraped and placed in the dishwasher and the cutlery, not all stuck in one pocket, then teach them this before you get upset when it is not done properly. Explain the ‘why’, and where possible, the impact this has on them. Something like: “When you space out the cutlery in the dishwasher pockets, it allows the machine to do all the work so that when you empty it, you don’t have to rewash and then dry all of the forks, knives and spoons – you can just put them away and be on your skateboard in :02”.
  • Have a plan (or two). Set a daily schedule but also build in a contingency plan or two. Especially if your kids are young, have one outdoor and one indoor contingency plan. And the contingency plan cannot always be tech. You’re asking for a world of trouble later when you try to regulate tech time. You will be met with resentment over the inconsistencies. Allowing your kids hours of tech one day and then only allowing :20 the next will invariably create a power struggle.
  • Stay on top of the housekeeping – Get it done the night before. Yep, even at midnight. Get it done. Get that floor vacuumed, dishes loaded, get food ready for the next day. Do the laundry and yes… fold it. The next morning, you won’t start your day on your back foot (with a pair of underwear caught on your slipper as you shuffle to the kitchen). It’s the best way to ensure your work goals for the next day are not abandoned because you can’t stand to look at the pile of laundry or are somehow stuck to the floor.
  • Prioritize rest and downtime. It’s easy to forget when the children are home all day, in their jammies or bathing suits, that the day must end and that tomorrow is a workday.  Everyone needs to get adequate downtime, rest and sleep to be at their best the next day. Downtime is a crucial part of recovery for your mind and body and essential to your survival. It’s that huge giant reset switch that you need to hit and remember to hit daily. Rest and downtime need to be part of the daily schedule.
  • Uphold respect. Nothing gets someone’s back up more than an ultimatum. Don’t go there.  An ultimatum is ‘all or nothing’. I win and you lose. It may seem expedient but even with your adult colleagues, this approach rarely works. Instead, take a deep breath and try to be solutions-based. Give your family a chance to devise a game plan and deadlines together. And if that doesn’t work, remember, you’re still the parent. Our most important job is raising good humans and sometimes that means setting expectations and consequences. And as per above, that means holding yourself accountable to them too.

And this brings me to this closing point, find time for silly and snuggles.

All work and no play… we know where that goes… take the time to enjoy the experience. Relish the laughs. Make up ridiculous lyrics to songs or funny stories or alter-egos or drawings. Board games are always a great low-tech way to bond and are solid for hilarious stories later. If your kids are older, share the music you used to listen to. You never know, “Parents just don’t understand” may make a comeback – then you’ll be cool in the eyes of your kid. Probably not and you’ll be mocked for decades to come. But a shared laugh, even at your expense, is still a bonding experience.

As Van Morrison said, “these are the days, now that we must savor…these are the days that will last forever, you’ve got to hold them in your heart.”

Enjoy the waning days of summer.