Practical Tips from a Work-From-Home Mom
I have worked from home for about six years now, beginning in the summer between my daughter’s first and second grade years. So, when I made the transition to working from home, not only did I have no idea what I was doing or how to find my new normal, school was out.
As more organizations and school systems move quickly to remote working and learning, my experiences — and lessons learned along the way — seem particularly relevant to pass along to my fellow parents.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no right answer. But there are some things you can do over the next few days to help everyone get closer to a new routine that works.
#1 — Whatever your work day looked like before, it doesn’t now. Let go.
You aren’t going to work straight through “regular,” uninterrupted work hours with a break for lunch.
You also don’t have to listen to any of those people who say you should still get dressed like you’re going into the office. In fact, not getting dressed to go into the office is by far my favorite productivity boost. Who doesn’t want more time and more comfort?
You will not succeed at re-creating your old work day in a new environment, and everyone in the house will be miserable if you try.
If I no longer have to commute, park, or blow dry my hair, I can repurpose that time to, say, make myself available to prepare and enjoy a midmorning snack with my little one and take an outside playbreak in the afternoon.
You have the same amount of hours to do the same amount of things, they’ll just be organized differently.
#2 — What’s most important?
Get really clear about the have-to-haves for both you and your kid(s). For us, that meant a few things.
It was important to me that my daughter not sit in an office all day just because it was convenient for me. She needed time to be a kid. Even still, I also wanted to keep her brain active over the summer.
For myself, I needed predictable blocks of focused time, as well as the ability to take conference calls that varied in intensity and formality. In other words, for some calls, it didn’t matter if she interrupted to ask a question or if she needed my attention for a moment; on other calls, though, I needed complete quiet and focus.
Once I was able to identify what was most important for her and for me, it became clear that the answer was to treat our summer days as a loose version of school. I needed to come up with ‘subjects’ that corresponded with the types of things I wanted her to spend time doing — not just math and reading, but also creative time, physical activity, and household contributions — and then organize them into predictable blocks of time for me but varied, bite-sized chunks for her to stem boredom and encourage engagement.
#3 — Project jars. Or bins, folders, or whatever you have available.
First, I made a daily work template that was a combination between a schedule and a ‘subject’ checklist. The schedule didn’t change, but what she chose to work on during each block of time was up to her, as long as she completed the checklist each day.
I also wanted to use language that she was familiar with from school, so we separated the day into “work cycles” and breaks of various lengths. During a work cycle, the office was to be a place of focus.
Each morning, she was responsible for filling out a blank work plan and the activities she had at her disposal to fill it with were pretty low-hanging fruit, like pages out of a math workbook we bought, a video on an education site, “play catch with mom,” and “dust the bookshelves.” Over time, I was able to add more engaging, creative things to our repertoire, but... baby steps.
For each subject, I made either a jar or folder of worksheets, idea starters, project descriptions, activities, etc. that she could pull from. Browse some lesson plan ideas in your favorite search engine this weekend, and I bet you’ll find some stuff worth printing and throwing in a folder. Also, I’m willing to bet that your kid’s school library has a wikipage of some kind with a treasure trove of links to educational sites you can peruse.
Start easy. Start small. Add over time.
But the bottom line here is to provide some structure along with some choice, and do it in a way that is low-maintenance for you in the moment. (Pro tip: Stock the project jars over the weekend.)
#4 — Set up a work space for your kid(s) near your own work space.
Sounds counterproductive, I know, but hear me out.
You need to be able to get work done and supervise your child, and both of these things become vastly easier if your child is engaged in independent tasks within your periphery.
I quickly realized that I needed to rearrange my home office to include a desk for my daughter and space for everything she needed. She needed to feel like this was her office, too.
She needed a place to “turn in” drawings she wanted me to see or work she had completed. She also needed a place to find instructions for new projects and activities without me having to stop what I was doing.
She also needed to see that I was, in fact, working; I wasn’t just in another room, quietly unavailable to her. Instead, we were together, even if each of us was focused on our own work.
#5 — Involve your kid(s) in establishing interruption criteria.
If I’m on a Code Purple conference call, someone better be bleeding — profusely — before you interrupt what I’m doing. Stuff like that.
Bonus points if your kid(s) can help name and establish the criteria for different contexts. Involving them up front also has the added benefit of incorporating all of their crazy “what if” questions on the front-end, so that everyone’s clear from the beginning where it falls on the cline of importance if a giraffe rings the doorbell. Or whatever else they think of that you won’t.
#6 — Take scheduled breaks.
Knowing that she would have my undivided attention, however briefly, really helped her learn to manage what types of talk and questions could or should wait. It also gave me a way to gently redirect her when she got it wrong: “That’s really interesting. I would love to hear more about that when we take our walk later. Could you make a note on the whiteboard, so we don’t forget?”
#7 — Use screen time to your strategic advantage.
I get that if we treat screen time like a reward, we’re reinforcing signals that we may not actually want to endorse.
But let’s be honest: screen time is the easiest time of the whole damn day. (When all else had failed, I pulled out the big guns: “Is there a movie you would really like to watch?”)
Use it wisely.
#8 — This is work-life balance.
Some days, you’ll be extraordinarily productive with your work. If you’re like most, you will feel great about work on these days, but it’ll come with pangs of parenting guilt. Other days, you will spend more time doing parent stuff and suddenly feel a little guilty that you didn’t do as much work as you “should” have done.
Try not to measure yourself using a single day as your yardstick.
Work-life balance often requires a wider lens than we’re used to using.
This is a big shift, but you’ll find your groove soon enough. Be patient with yourselves.