The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives almost overnight. For so many of us, working from home has been a major shift — especially when you throw kids and partners into the mix.
I’ve worked from home with kids for the past 10 years. Has it been easy? Never. And the truth is, it won’t be business as usual for any of us for a while. But it is possible to succeed professionally amid chaos. Here are my strategies on how to stay productive while working from home.
GIVE YOURSELF A MOMENT TO ACKNOWLEDGE WHAT’S HAPPENING
What’s happening now is a big deal. It’s not normal, it’s unprecedented and it deserves to be acknowledged. Instead of pretending like you can be as productive as you were at the office, or that you can keep the kids fully on schedule, give yourself permission to admit that things are not going to be the same. We’ll all get through this.
KEEP YOUR PARTNER IN THE LOOP
With disrupted schedules and fear and anxiety levels at an all-time high, it’s only natural that your relationship dynamics will change as well. If you and your partner are used to having outside child care and are now home together full-time, there’ll be some adjustment. You might even find yourself having some “colorful” conversations about who does what and whose work takes a hit when the kids need something.
“This may be a good time for structure and major communication,” says Lauren Peabody, a therapist and owner of NURTURE Family Center in Fenton, Michigan. “Start by communicating your fears – if one of you takes on more of the pressure of supporting the family financially, try to be extra understanding, as he or she may be experiencing a great deal of uncertainty. While resentment and frustration are understandable, the only thing you can control is your reactions.”
LOSE THE GUILT
If you feel guilty about not giving into your kids’ demands to play, not providing them with enough fun activities or working instead of spending more time with them, forget it. To survive working at home, you have to give up on guilt. You are serving your family by providing for them during this uncertain time, and that’s nothing to feel guilty about.
WORK WITH YOUR ENERGY LEVELS
It’s important to take stock of when you have the most energy during the day and work around that. If you have very young children at home, this will obviously be easier said than done, but knowing when you’re at your peak can help you structure your workday better.
Now’s not the time to make any drastic changes: If you’re a night owl, stick with that. If you have zero energy in the afternoon, use that time to rest or do a fun activity with the kids, instead of forcing yourself to power through. When I work with my natural energy levels, rather than fight them, I’m much more productive.
USE A ‘CHECK THE DOOR’ POLICY WHEN WORKING
When I’m at home, I use an “open or closed door” policy. I’m privileged to have a home office, so I discussed my expectations for it with my family: If the door is open (which it normally is) my kids know they can come in and hang out if they’d like to be near me. I’ve clearly outlined what they are allowed to do in the office while I’m working, like color or read quietly in the corner. If the door is closed, however, they know I’m on a phone call or working on something important – like a rush deadline – and can’t come in.
Meredith Napolitano, a freelance writer, and her husband, Adam, a managing partner at an advisory firm, have worked from home together for eight years and have a similar, three-tier door policy in place with their 8- and 9-year-old daughters:
Open door: I’m working but am available.
Cracked door: I’m semi-tied up with work tasks. Come in if you really need something but be prepared to wait a minute.
Closed door: You can only come in if it’s an emergency.
“The girls do really well with this,” Napolitano says. “We only use the closed door when we really need it. If we kept it closed all day, they'd probably rebel against it.”
BATCH YOUR TASKS
You may have heard about time batching as a productivity tip, where you group similar tasks together and complete them in one sitting. Instead of just applying this concept to your work tasks (which I do recommend), try batching your home tasks as well.
If you try and clean up as you go, you’ll become mentally exhausted from switching between work and home tasks. So instead of cleaning up the kitchen after every meal, leave the dishes until the afternoon for when you need a break from work. And rather than tidy up your house or apartment throughout the day, just do it once. (This depends on how many people are in your house, of course).
EMPLOY THE POWER OF WHITE NOISE
White noise is your best friend when working from home, especially with other people in the house. I often work with a fan on, or I’ll put on headphones and listen to ocean sounds on YouTube Music.
USE BASKETS TO OCCUPY YOUR KIDS
If you have a baby or toddler by your side while you’re working, fill up any basket you have with toys, books and anything that can be destroyed – babies love emptying baskets because it makes them feel like they’re getting away with something. Right now, my basket has an old headband, several random socks, stuffed animals, oversized checker pieces and building blocks. It doesn’t need to be fancy to get the job done.
FULLY UNPLUG AT LEAST ONCE A DAY
If there was ever a time to be extra conscious of setting digital boundaries in place to protect your health, it’s now. Without a physical workplace to leave at the end of the day, coupled with the constant temptation to check the news, it can be extremely difficult to give your brain the break it needs. Be diligent about fully unplugging at some point during the day.
BE PATIENT WITH THE PROCESS
Here’s the last, and perhaps most important, piece of the work-at-home productivity puzzle: The situation is not going to be perfect. In fact, it’s going to be a complete disaster at times.
Even though I’ve worked at home for 10 years now, every single day is a struggle: Someone will need a diaper change right at a critical moment or you’ll just be plain exhausted and tired of the constant mess around you. It took years before my kids understood that although I’m at home, I’m really “at work.” They didn’t grasp the concept overnight.
While it’s going to be a process to get through this pandemic, if there’s one goal to prioritize, it’s getting through it together as a family.