How to work from home when you have children

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many people who were previously used to working in an office environment have had to get used to working from home, setting up home offices and acclimatising to a much quieter workplace setting than they may typically be used to.

During the peak of lockdown, when bars and restaurants were closed, members of the public were expected to avoid all non-essential travel and work from home where possible to help curb the outbreak.

As lockdown restrictions lifted, many returned to their workplaces, some just for a day or two a week to ensure social distancing is stringently observed among colleagues.

On Tuesday 16 September, it was reported that people who work in offices may be given a “work from home” order within the next couple of weeks if the newly instated rule on only socialising in groups of six has little impact on Covid-19 rates.

Many people have continued working from home since March, some facing the daunting reality of having to juggle work commitments and a hectic family life simultaneously.

Just ask political science professor Robert Kelly, who created one of 2017’s most viral moments after his two young children floated into his office just as he was being interviewed live on BBC News television.

But, what can parents do to help avoid sticky situations like this happening to them? Here is The Independent’s guide to working from home while remaining productive and a patient parent.

Establish a routine

Both children and adults alike thrive on routines so it is important to set out some kind of structure for the day.

Sergei Urban, a parenting blogger who goes by the handle “The Dad Lab” and author of 40 Quick, Fun and Easy Activities to do at Home, says that there is no need for your schedule to be too sophisticated.

“Just make sure you are adding plenty of free play and reading time. If you have a garden, make sure you take advantage of that and spend at least one hour there a day,” Urban says. “Remember we need to be isolated from other people, but generally being outdoors is very beneficial.”

Louise Pentland, a TV presenter, best-selling author and parenting vlogger, adds that while she and her two children – eight-year-old Darcy and two-year-old Pearl – love having a routine, it is important to be realistic about how much you can achieve in a day, particularly when it comes to your child’s education.

“Set small specific goals and anything extra you do is a massive win!” Pentland says.

“It’s worth researching what the right amount of time your children should be studying a day is – I discovered that Darcy should only be doing one to two hours of actual ‘work’ a day, and the rest of the time can be spent learning through play.”

Emma Conway, a parenting blogger who goes by the name “Brummy Mummy” and author of Will I Ever Pee Alone Again?, agrees but recommends that parents focus on what is best for their own family and not look at what others are doing on social media.

Communicate with your partner

If you live in a two-parent household, it is important to discuss your workload with one another so that you can establish how your working days are going to run alongside taking care of your children.

“Stephen and I are both self-employed and will both be expected to work full time at home with both of the children for the foreseeable future. Which is quite daunting,” Conway says.

“At the start of each week we are going to mark out hours we need to be at a computer for conference calls/meetings and see if the other one can be with the children. However if there is a time where we will be both needing to be working I am not adverse to a movie afternoon with popcorn and blankets.”

Urban agrees adding that working in “two hours shifts can help give one parent time to do some work, while the other parent will not feel overwhelmed with new kids responsibilities”.

Make the most of nap time

If your children are still taking naps during the day, then this can free up an hour – or two or three – of uninterrupted time to focus, says Pentland.

“Give yourself flexible working hours – naptimes and bedtimes are going to be your new best friend, so try to schedule your own work around these times,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a mother of four and parenting author of The Gentle Parenting Book, suggest that nap time can also be a good opportunity to engage in some self care during stressful periods.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a child who still naps, don’t be tempted to try to cram all the day’s chores into that time. Instead use it to try to offload and restore yourself a little,” she explains.

“Try some meditation and mindfulness, using apps or the many free videos online, or just spend a few minutes to focus on your breathing and ground yourself. Get outside if you have an outside space, listen to some music.”

Have a designated workspace

Some parents don’t have the option of a separate space, but for those who do a designated spot to spend your working day can help boost productivity and focus.

“Clear a space in your house and make it the dedicated office/school work area, ideally somewhere you can shut the door on,” Pentland suggests, adding that doing so can make the transition from work or school time to home time much easier and ensure that your house “still feels like a home that you can relax in”.

Conway agrees, adding that she is most productive when working away from communal areas in the family home.

“We are lucky enough to have a space in our garage that is an office. So whilst one of us is with the children the other can go down their to focus on work,” Conway explains.

“I have worked from home for a few years now and I am always really productive if I am not working on a couch…or worse in bed! I have already decided that during this time our kitchen table is going to be a homeschool area and as we are expecting no visitors a little bit of mess isn’t going to be a big deal.”

However, that is not to say that working alongside your children is a no-go, as Ockwell-Smith explains: “Personally, I’ve worked from home with four children for nearly 18 years and just do so sitting on the sofa with my laptop surrounded by the chaos and devastation. Just do whatever works for you!”

Use technology to your advantage

With children now at home during what was once the traditional working and school week, parents are expected to become part professional entertainers and teachers, as well as fulfilling their work commitments.

In this case, Pentland urges to parents to use technology to their advantage. “There are tons of apps and games that are both entertaining and educational, but also plenty of programmes on TV and Netflix,” she says.

Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson, parenting influencers otherwise known as Mother Pukka and Papa Pukka, and authors of Parenting the Sh*t out of Life, agree and encourage parents to explore the wealth of educational tools that are out there.

“We’ve found TedEd brilliant. Small educational Ted Talks for kids that they can watch while you work,” they say.

“We’ve also found Reading Eggs brilliant for home-schooling. They just work through it themselves learning to read and it alleviates any parental screen time guilt. Then there’s the ‘non-toy toy’ box filled with adult things they can play with like old keys and old phones. They don’t always want to play with actual toys only the grown-up stuff so this fixes that.

“Other than that we’ve found boredom to be healthy. Kids so rarely get bored anymore and this is their time to create their own games. More than anything don’t feel guilty if they are on their screens more, we’re all doing our best.”

Urban also highlights the benefit of having multiple children, adding that there are multiple ways to make sure they entertain each other.

“My older child quite often comes up with ‘workshops’ for my younger one. Usually, those are some drawing or making crafts activities. Children see teachers very often, and they love to step in their shoes and be in charge of other children,” he says, before adding that YouTube boasts a wealth of simple ways to educate and occupy your children.

Be honest with your employer

During such an uncertain time, it is important to be honest with yourself and those you work with.

Once you have established a schedule that works, don’t be afraid to discuss it with your boss and let them know that you are keen to find a way for this to work for both of you.

“I am lucky enough to be able to manage my workload. So I can work evenings or early mornings if needs be. Stephen however will have to work a standard 8-5pm but has already forewarned his employer that at times he may have to work evenings to catch up. Thankfully they were fine with this,” Conway explains.

Ockwell-Smith agrees, adding that she believes “most employers will be understanding, especially if they are parents”.

“If you know it’s going to be impossible to take phone calls or video calls, then be honest and ask that you be contacted by email unless it is absolutely urgent,” she suggests.

Focus on the positives

It can be easy for work to seep into home life but, now more than ever, mastering a work-life balance is key to maintain a healthy lifestyle and fully enjoying the parenting experience with your children.

“Find your own balance that works for you and your children,” Urban says.

“Don’t blame yourself if you think that they watch TV too much. Keep in mind that these are extraordinary times and not everything has to be perfect from the day one,” he continues, adding that the most important thing to consider is mental health.

“During a day make sure you have one-to-one time with every child too so no one feels left out,” Urban explains.

“The important thing is to think about mental health. The whole family should stay positive, and if to make everyone happy you need to spend the evening watching TV, go for it.”

Conway agrees adding that it is important to look at the situation as optimistically as possible.

“I am used to being with the children during school holidays so whilst this will be hard, I have had experiences of long periods of time with both my kids,” she explains.

“Stephen however hasn’t and whilst of course he is stressed about work, I have asked him to look at it this way. A lot of us, bar those all-important key workers, will be a generation of parents that got to spend an extended period of time with our children.

“So I am getting him to embrace walks in the park, eating lunch with his kids and getting precious unexpected time together as a family. It’s going to be a challenge with some bumps I’m sure. But I think together we can do it!”

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