11 tips for working from home with kids around that ACTUALLY work

The house is remarkably quiet. I’m on a conference call on Google Hangouts, but my eye is on the clock. It’s 12:35 p.m. You’re not going to nag today, remember? I remind myself.

12:37 p.m. Still nothing. The schedule I made with the kids says lunch is at noon. I grit my teeth (my chiropractor and dentist are gonna be really rich when this is done).

12:41 p.m. I mute my conference call, duck out of the video screen and yell, “When’s the last time one of you looked at a clock?!” The pandemic has made me a shrew, the kind of mom I swore I’d never be.

Twelve usually answers first. She’s likely watching TikTok videos, but doesn’t like headphones. She gives me a casual, “I don’t know” back. “Did anyone consider having lunch?” I hate the grating sound of my own voice. Why do I care? Oh right, because if I don’t remind them to eat, they will come downstairs grouchy and fight while they destroy the kitchen. Twelve then barges into Fifteen’s room and parrots me, her voice one giant eye roll. “Hey, we’re supposed to be eating lunch now!” she tells him. They stomp downstairs and look at me. “What’s for lunch?” Sigh.

Whether you’ve worked from home sporadically (PA Days, sick kid…) or are a seasoned pro, you’re probably not new to the hard truth that working from home with kids is challenging. But now, with so many of us working from home en masse due to the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, we’re all feeling this frustration together. How long will this last? Do we really have to do this for three months?

Regardless, I need to get work done. So I polled a bunch of parents in the trenches to get their strategies for how to make the most of working from home, and just like our feelings about this pandemic, the responses were on a spectrum from helicoptering/micromanaging to off-leash/CTFD styles. I’m sharing my favourites, but it’s really one giant experiment right now, so feel free to pick and choose from the ideas below, test them out for a few days and then tweak or pivot to suit your household.

Assess whether a schedule is best for your family

For these past three weeks, school boards across the country have been frantically trying to assess which students have access to technology like WiFi and laptops, to ensure a fair education system for all. In the meantime, some parents have chosen to get a step ahead and home-school, while for others the concept of trying to play teacher while also working full-time is laughable.

In our house, trying to go freestyle triggered my ADHD brain. No structure means we forget to eat until we are all grumpy, or that no one has moved their body in a healthy way for days. I’ve instituted what I refer to as prison rules: alarm clocks are being set, strict meal times enforced, yard time, work detail, lights out… You get the picture.

I’m a part-time life coach, and some of my clients, on the other hand, were revelling in letting go of schedules, allowing their kids to set their own tone for the day. “It’s such a relief to not have to manage her day as well as my own,” said one tired mama. The need for schedules might also be age-dependent, or be influenced by whether there’s another caregiver in the household to tag off with.

Assess your #hometeam

Productivity and organization expert and mom Clare Kumar has a two-step suggestion. “1. Take care of your #hometeam. Do a needs assessment of capability (what can each person do); capacity (how much can they do); and commitments (what have they signed up to do). 2. Co-create a schedule respecting #1.”

Set your own expectations

“Productivity doesn’t equal eight hours.”

You’re not going to get done what you used to and it’s best to let that go fast, if you haven’t already. Much like having a newborn (which, maybe you do!), working from home means you can probably only deliver one big to-do for the day and that’s an accomplishment. Celebrate if it gets done! Forgive yourself when it doesn’t.

As one mom told me: “I don’t have flexibility with my work schedule and everything is quite urgent so I gave them a loose schedule that they sometimes follow, provide text message direction, and have banished them to another floor except for meal times and backyard recess. The privilege of a house with multiple floors. The work is going okay (which is good because it’s important) but the rest is a work in progress.”

The early bird catches more than worms

Some parents rely on getting up before the kids are up. “I find that getting up super early, to fit in focused work before the kids are up works best for me. Then throughout the day, I can fit in calls, emails, or shorter tasks that require less focus. I also try to not define my day by the hours I work, I try to be more focused on the tasks I accomplished.”

Get your focus priorities done first

“Prioritize your own workday and make sure you get to anything that requires time and focus (like writing) first because there will be interruptions and it will take longer than it should,” said one WFH mom. “Then do give your kids some time and attention. Some tasks like replying to emails or reading can be done while overseeing schoolwork. Get everyone outside for a bit, even if it’s just five minutes of jumping jacks or being silly.”

Set clear boundaries

Draw your line in the sand and stick with it, said this long-time work-from-homer: “Door shut means no coming in! It’s taken a few years for them to really get this but they do now. It helps that I do all my calls on speaker phone because they hear another voice and it’s a reminder to not come in. That said, I still remind them before I’m on a call that I’m on a call.”

There are no doors in my house except for the kids’ rooms, but one helpful parent suggested posting a sign outside wherever you’re working (stairs to the basement, entry to the kitchen) so that kids can pause and reflect on whether they really need to interrupt you before entering.

Relax screen time rules

It’s going to happen and it’s often going to save your day. Be grateful for access to technology and if it really bothers you (um, hi! I struggle with this one, too), use apps like Apple’s Screen Time to decide which apps are allowed, and for how long.

Set up snack and drink stations

Emily Weinmann of Us Happy Four recently had a post go viral when she shared her tips for running a design business from home with kids under the age of seven. “Prepare a BUNCH of snack kits the night before. I have little snack bags and cups. They are ready on their own shelf so I can grab two while on a call and shove them in front of whining kids.”

It also makes sense put kid-safe glasses on a low shelf kids can reach, and teach your little ones how to get themselves water.

Get activities set up to discover

“Prepare activity stations,” says Weinmann. “Think beads and string. Macaroni, glue and paper. Play Doh and rolling pin and cookie cutters on a garbage bag. Always on a garbage bag. If it’s the worst disaster pick the whole thing up, while on a call, and throw it out.”

But what’s more, she adds: Never tell your kids to do the activity! They won’t, she says. Just have them set up. “Let them discover them on their own. You’ll get way more silence. If one whines while on a call (see the theme?), silently lead them by the arm to the nearest garbage bagged station and watch as they dig in.”

Tap into other family members to help

You’re not seeing Grandma right now, but once you teach her how to set up a video call, what can she help to supervise while you’re busy? An art or music class, a baking session or simply a fun chat with stories from old, getting family or friends to help out will give you a breather.

In our house, we’re self-distancing from Dad, who happens to have a teaching degree and is looking for ways to help us. So he’s been assigning fun “homework” like, “Read this article about Emma Watson/Hermione and answer these five questions in Google Docs.”

Be gentle with your kids (and yourselves)

“Be gentle with your kids; they’re not used to this either,” says a mom who’s worked from home for almost nine years. “Mine get [that I need to focus] but they still need attention, especially now when their world is also upside down. Aim for 48 minute increments of productivity (yes, this is a magic number).”

Remember, there’s no one right way to get through this thing beyond “stay home/stay safe.” Internalize this tweet I saw recently: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” So cut yourself some slack. You’re doing great, sweetie!

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