How to juggle work when the kids are at home and demanding your attention

For 11 weeks, thousands of parents who have been asked to work remotely have been coping with the increased demands of trying to entertain and educate their children while also holding down jobs. For 11 weeks, parents have been riding that steep learning curve of what it means to work full-time from home while trying to balance the demands of work life and home life all while coronavirus remains a concern. With the recent news of many schools not fully reopening now until later this year and with no clear end in sight, thousands of parents are having to accept that this is going to be their new reality for the foreseeable future.

Working from home with children is challenging enough. Add in financial worries, lack of proper technology for online distance learning, and the logistical challenges of just running simple errands, and it can feel downright paralysing. To help try and ease some of this pressure, this article outlines a few ways that can make working from home with children just that little bit easier.

How to make working from home with children easier (18 strategies)

1) Create your workspace

If you don’t have a designated work area, you’ll find it difficult to separate mentally from the rest of the house. For example, sitting at the kitchen table isn’t going to be an optimal workspace as you’ll be exposed to distractions either from your children or household jobs that you feel need to get done.

To work productively while at home, you need somewhere where you can separate your roles as mum or dad and business person. You need somewhere that you can give work your full concentration for a set amount of time with minimal disruptions; somewhere like a spare room where you can close the door and switch on to work as well as being able to close the door behind you to signal the end of your workday.

2) Set boundaries with your children

Set boundaries with your children when it comes to your workspace and work time. Assuming that your children are old enough to keep themselves occupied, explain the situation to them and how important it is that you remain focused throughout the day with minimal interruptions. If they are younger, help them understand when you are in “do not disturb” mode by getting them to draw pictures and sticking these on your door. These can be as simple as a ‘stop’ and ‘go’ sign or a ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ - anything to signal when they can’t come in and when they can. Communicating boundaries helps you to stay focused and it ensures that you’re family don’t feel neglected as they know when they will get time with you.

3) Establish a new daily routine

In such a time of uncertainty, a new structure will help everyone. Don’t forget, your children’s lives have been uprooted too, so if you can create a new daily routine that resembles school for them and work for you, you’re winning.

Find a structure that works for everybody and one that satisfies both work needs and those of your family. This could be getting up early to work before the children even wake up. Then, when you wake them, you eat breakfast and get dressed together as you do when they go to nursery/daycare/school. After you set them their first school task, you can do some more work or you can complete what you need to during their ‘lunch hour’ where they can play or use technology as a break. After another hour or two of schooling, you can then work in their break until it’s time for dinner. Whatever routine works for you, e.g. you working early or working when they go to bed, just make sure that you set your optimal “office” hours and keep as consistent a routine as possible.

4) Plan ahead

Working from home with children is stressful enough without all the added stress of the coronavirus, so plan for this. Plan for tasks and projects to take longer, plan your own internal deadlines that are earlier than the actual ones, and plan to prioritise your schedule day-by-day. You never know what each day will bring when you’re working remotely and your children are home 24/7 so just plan to be ahead and you won’t miss any deadlines.

5) Be flexible

A plan and a schedule are necessary, essential to making it through this period even, but you need to leave room for change. As we said, if you children are having a bad day and need a bit more attention from you or if it’s a beautiful day and you want to spend it with them in the garden, then do. It’s okay to move your schedule around every once in a while, especially during this time, so be flexible. If you’ve planned ahead, you can afford to do this without it negatively impacting your work. Plus, you can always catch up later.

6) Capitalise on naptime

If you have very young children, take advantage of naptime. You may not feel like it at the time but you can get a productive hour to three hours of work done by doing this. It’s what they call working smarter, not harder. During naptime, you can use this opportunity to make work-related phone calls or to complete any assignment that requires your complete focus and attention.

Quick tip: if for some reason, they aren’t tired, you can still place them in their crib but give them some books for their amusement. It may take around 20 minutes for them to get restless or they will self-soothe and fall asleep.

7) Communicate more than you think is necessary

The best advice for parents working from home with children is to “communicate as much as possible, more than you think is necessary.” This ensures that everyone is on the same page and, perhaps more importantly, it takes immense pressure off you.

So, communicate with your spouse and your children about your working hours and be as transparent as possible with your colleagues about your situation. A lot of parents are in the same boat at the moment so it’s okay to share that you are trying your best to juggle the needs of your children with work, they’ll understand. By simply being transparent such as starting a conference call with “Just a heads up, I might have my child walk into this room, and if that happens I will handle it and will get right back to you,” this ensures that your colleagues aren’t caught by surprise and it puts you at ease as you’ve set their expectations.

8) Create a list of activities for your children

You may not think that younger children will amuse themselves, but trust us, they will if you make their own ‘quality time’ something to look forward to. Think about their favourite toys or films and what activities they love to do and create a list together with your children. These activities are then reserved for when you are ‘working’ and it will be their ‘quality time.’ Very quickly, you’ll find that they’ll be looking forward to these periods where they get to watch their favourite film or choose an exciting activity from the list and as a result, you’ll get around 2 hours worth of uninterrupted work time.

9) Communicate with the school to help prioritise learning

You’re not a teacher and schools know this, so don’t hesitate to contact them for help. Long-distance online learning is a challenge for all ages so if the pressure is too much, communicate with the school to find out which areas are the highest priority for your children to get through first. Schools are very aware that they won’t be able to complete the same curriculum as if they were in the classrooms so they will be willing to help you triage.

10) Do some ‘emergency drills’

As a parent working from home with children, you’ve probably either experienced the embarrassment of a sudden outburst from your child during a conference call or you spend a lot of your time worrying about the possibility of it happening. Unfortunately, this is a risk that will always be looming in the background but there is something that you can do to minimise that risk: you can take your children through a series of simulations or ‘emergency drills.’

Think of the main work scenarios that you’ll need quiet for. This could be when the phone rings and your children need to sit quietly and wait for you to finish; it could be when you are on a video call and they enter the room, what do you want them to do? Practising appropriate responses is not only fun for your children, but practice genuinely does make perfect (or near enough).

11) Reward good behaviour and offer incentives

Like most of us, children love positive reinforcement and praise so when they exhibit the type of good behaviour that you want (e.g. not interrupting you while you were on a video call), don’t forget to reward them. Rewards such as screen time, a sticker book, treats for mealtimes such as pizza night or popcorn and a family film can really give them the incentive to behave while you work. The same goes for behaviour that you don’t want too as you can withdraw these rewards or privileges.

12) Share household chores

Working from home, juggling family life, and having to run a household is hard so get everyone involved. You can start by sharing chores as, contrary to popular belief, younger children love this responsibility and feeling like a valued part of the family. This can be something as easy as tidying toys away, getting dressed or making the bed for younger children. For older children, they can help you set and clear the table, empty the rubbish bins, clean their room or put the shopping away. COVID-19 is a time of crisis so reinforce this ‘we’re all in this together’ ethos at home by having everyone contribute to the team effort. This will be good for the family but it will also help to ease the pressure for you too.

13) Take shifts with your partner

Not everyone will be in a position where this is possible, but if both you and your spouse are working from home, take advantage of this. Alternating shifts with your partner can make working remotely a lot easier. It can be something as simple as you waking up early to work the first half of the day while your partner wakes the children, makes breakfast and manages the first half of their school day. Then after lunch, you can switch. This allows you to both have uninterrupted work time and ensures that your children have a consistent schedule for their wellbeing too.

Important note: if you are a single parent or your partner is a key worker, a strict schedule and extra planning will be needed to maximise your day.

14) Don’t expect to work at your normal capacity

As we said before, you need to manage everyone else’s expectations when working from home but it is also important to manage your own. Working from home with children plus all the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the global pandemic is going to be hard and you won’t be working at your best. That’s just a fact and the sooner you accept that the better.

To set realistic expectations and avoid you getting frustrated or stressed when you don’t do as much as you want, always overestimate the time it will take you to do things. Take your to-do list for the day and cut it in half, maybe even half again. Schedule two days for things that usually take you one. You are going to be less productive during this time so set yourself up for success, not failure.

15) Take regular breaks

Just as you would in the office, take regular breaks when working from home. If you don’t, then your focus, productivity, and potentially your wellbeing will suffer. Find what work increments and types of breaks work for you. For example, it could be taking 10 minutes for every hour of focused work you complete or it could be the Pomodoro technique (working in 25-minute increments with 5-minute breaks, then after 4 increments you take a longer break of 15-20 minutes).

In your breaks, it’s important to completely switch off from your work, otherwise you won’t return refreshed with renewed energy to focus again. Fill your rest periods with communication, exercise or mindfulness as these are some of the best ways to unplug. This could be doing a quick at-home yoga session, going for a walk with your children, meditating, reading or baking, whatever works best for you.

Quick tip: taking breaks is fine, just remember to communicate this to your team when you’ll be away so they know when they can reach you again.

16) Accept that spare time will almost certainly involve more screen time

Working from home with children for weeks on end is exhausting, so don’t be too hard on yourself. If your children, regardless of their age, are getting more screen time, I can assure you that you are not the only parent allowing this and that it most certainly doesn’t make you a bad one; it just makes you human.

Many parents are sitting their toddlers in front of a Netflix cartoon or an iPad game to get 45 minutes of critical work done or they are being far more lenient on how long their teenager spends on the Xbox as long as they get their homework for the day done. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a stressful time for us all so don’t feel guilty about letting your children indulge while you get your work done. As long as you communicate to them that this is a temporary situation and that this ‘freedom’ won’t go on forever, your children will know what to expect further down the line and you can let go of the guilt in order to be productive now.

17) Exercise together often

Even if you or your children don’t feel like it, exercise together every day. Exercise releases those all-important endorphins which are essential for everyone’s health and wellbeing. Not only will they help you all sleep better, but they also boost self-esteem, reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, and they help you to focus, all of which are essential to support our wellbeing during this time.

Children have higher energy levels than us adults so they need to burn off more energy, hence why so many parents are implementing P.E. lessons first thing in the morning! As we all know, wearing our children out means that they are far more likely to sit still for longer, so doing this in the morning will help them to focus for longer stretches on their school work and it means fewer interruptions for you when you’re doing your work. Find out what works for your children and mix it up. You can go for a morning walk or cycle or try some of the thousands of workouts on YouTube such as P.E. with Joe.

18) Pat yourself on the back as much as possible

Juggling full-time work with 24/7 childcare and education is beyond difficult so just do your best. This is likely to be the new normal now for the next few weeks to months so lower your expectations, check in with other parent friends who can commiserate, and give yourself a break.

It’s really important for you to have some compassion for yourself during this time and to keep reminding yourself that no one has experience juggling the range of things that many parents are currently juggling. All you can do is acknowledge your efforts and forgive yourself often. Before you go to sleep, tell yourself “I’m going to sleep well and wake up tomorrow to do what I need to how I can. It doesn’t have to be perfect - just good enough.”

Doing your best is the best you can do

For parents who have been working from home with children for 11 weeks now, the situation may feel impossible to carry on for weeks on end. While that may be true, it’s important to know that you can only do the best that you can and that is enough.

Using these 18 tips, hopefully, you can find a happy medium between getting the work done that you need and spending quality time with your family. Just remember, you’re essentially juggling two full-time jobs right now so go easy on yourself.

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