Tips for Working From Home with Young Kids

We design our lives, accidentally or on purpose, to maximize our strengths and protect our sanity.  Most of us send our kids to school because we aren’t good at every single subject and we don’t know how to teach or because we need to work, or simply because we have skills and contributions to make in the world that require our children to be looked after during the day while we work.  Having our kids home from school while we’re also trying to work from home has added to the chaos of working from home.

I have four kids.  They’re grown now.  But, we figured out how to work from home with all our four kids and two to three dogs (including puppies).  My husband and I have had many kinds of businesses and jobs.  We’ve both worked from home full time with a houseful of kids.  I’ve worked from home full time with a houseful of kids while my husband was working 60 hours a week and traveling most of the time.  I’ve had a brick and mortar service-based business, school age kids, and my husband working out of the house full time.  And, we’ve juggled two consulting businesses, a houseful of teens and pre-teens, work travel, and working from home.  We’ve figured some things out.  It was mostly through trial and error.  Here are some of the things that we learned along the way:

Everyone Needs Their Own Workspace
My husband and I prefer a space with a door.  We didn’t always have that luxury.  When my kids were school age, my office had a glass door so that I could see them, and they could see me.  They could tell if I was on the phone. They could do sign language or write post it notes and stick them on the door.  Before we had offices, we put “desks” (sometimes just a TV tray) in corners or converted closets to offices–regular, old fashion closets, not fancy walk in ones.  Just take off the doors, put a folding table inside, run a power strip (because most closets don’t have power), and set up shop.  Kids need their own space too.  Their bedroom closets also make nice workspaces.  That meant we needed to use dressers and the space under the beds for storage.  One of my kids is an extrovert and prefers to set up in the kitchen.  We had him at the kitchen table for a long time.  We set up a little plastic set of drawers in the kitchen for keeping his books and school supplies in so we could still use the kitchen table for dinner.

Headphones for everyone! 
Nobody wants to be on my calls with me while I’m on speaker phone at the kitchen table. I don’t want to be in their Zoom classes or hanging out with their friends.  Have functioning, comfortable headphones for everyone.  I prefer old school, plug in earbud headphones because I don’t need one more thing to charge and I tend to be on the phone and in video conferences for longer than most of those will hold a charge. I wear the left headphone only, the one with the speaker on it.  I keep the other one out so I can hear what’s going on in my house that might need my immediate attention.  My kids like open-back over the ear headphones with microphones.  They find them more comfortable and give them the option to hear ambient noise if they so choose (which they don’t normally).  My husband loves the bougie Apple Airpods.  I cannot tell you how much better these options are than what we had 20 years ago.  I had this funky, clunky desk phone with a weird headset that I had to special order from a catalogue before existed.  Headphones are now available for your every device everywhere.  Rejoice and use them.

Have Schedules and Communicate Them
Have regular times for getting up, going to bed, and meals.  Everyone doesn’t need to have the same schedule, but everyone should have a schedule that works for them and allows them to do their work and unwind after.  Set regular work hours for everyone in the house.  Schedule breaks and lunches.  Schedule your “end time” and stick to it.

Use Block Time
Block out time to take phone calls, have meetings, focus and concentrate, write, work on projects, and return emails.  Block like tasks together to eliminate the energy drain of switching back and forth between activities and to maximize your natural biorhythms.  If you’re super productive in the morning, don’t waste that time emptying your email inbox.  Adult learning theory suggests working in 90-minute blocks to maximize productivity.  The Pomodoro Method for productivity uses 20-minute timers for maximizing productivity.  Most of our days are parsed out into 60-minute blocks because of the calendaring software we use.  Figure out what works for you and your family and use block time to maximize your productivity and focus.  I tend to work in 3-hour blocks with 30 to 60-minute breaks between where I can check in on my family.  My puppy is the one that needs the most attention during my breaks these days.  When my kids were younger, I could sometimes only get 20 minutes of focus at a time and 60 minutes with a lot of advanced planning and a little luck.  I would set a kitchen timer for them, so they’d know when I was going to be done.  If you’re home-schooling your kids, figure out when they need the most help and when they are best on their own and block yourself out to help them when they need it.

Check Your Tech
For some people, they can effectively block out two or three times a day to check and return emails. Some people need to check more often.  If you do need to check your tech (phone, text, Slack, email, etc.) more often, do a quick triage and respond to what you need to respond to and schedule daily blocks of time to manage the rest – once or twice a day generally works for most people with a slightly longer block about once a week to clean up the strays and stragglers.

Flex Your Time
If you have the ability or the luxury to flex your work time, you should do it.  When my kids were little, I couldn’t really complete a thought or do any strategic or focused work while they were awake.  I often did my best work from 9pm-1am or from 10pm-2pm.  This meant that I was sometimes only getting 4 hours of sleep before my kids got up in the morning. I made sure to plan time when kids were napping and older kids were watching movies, reading, or playing video games to close my eyes on the couch for 20-60 minutes, even if I had a baby asleep on my chest while I was doing it.  I would also have to sleep in or take a one long nap every weekend to catch up.  My husband prefers to get up early and start working around 5am and take a 30-minute nap after lunch, siesta style.  When my kids were school age, I had a brick and mortar service-based business.  I was able to flex my schedule to maximize my time at home with my kids and my busiest hours at work.  I was closed on Sundays and Mondays.  I worked from 8:30am-2:30pm and 7pm-9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I had some evening hours for my clients.  I worked from 8:30am-5:30pm on Wednesdays when I could get someone to help with my kids after school.  And, I worked 8:30am-2:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays.  Not everyone has the luxury to flex their schedules.  If you do, you should.

Give Attention to Urgent Problems as Soon as Possible
The longer you delay, the worse they will get.  Urgent problems include your bladder, your fussy toddler, your fussy toddler’s bladder, children fighting, your restless dog, and your blood pressure.  The longer you ignore these things, the worse they get.  They will not magically resolve themselves without attention.  There is a lot more patience for your whole life at work these days.  Say, “I’ve been on back to back calls all day.  I could really use a 5-minute break.  Can we end early?”  You don’t have to say, “Or I will pee my pants before my next call.”  You can also say, “My kids need some immediate attention, can I call you back in 15 minutes?”  Nobody is unhappy to have an unscheduled break.  You’re doing them a favor, too.

Plan Ahead
Let your family know when you can and cannot be interrupted.  You can use a white board or sticky notes.  I simply use a closed door.  If the door is closed, my kids can’t open it unless they have bleeding they can’t stop or a fire they can’t put out.  This means I have to make sure I open my door when they can interrupt me, otherwise they will not be able to manage the boundary of the closed door for long.  Tag team who’s “on call” for urgent family matters like toddlers, puppies, fights, deliveries, etc.  When our kids were small, we took 3 hour shifts so one of us was always interruptible.

Use Transition Rituals at the Start and End of Your Day
I start my day with a cup of tea at the kitchen table.  It’s my “commute time.”  One of my clients goes to his home office an hour early to read the news, listen to podcasts, and do some writing before his day starts.  With small kids at home, my transition to work was normally just getting them all set up with their activities and schedules for the day.  There were times when my husband and I were handing off little kids so we could work.  I’d kiss them and say, “Mommy’s going to work now.  See you in a couple of hours.” And, then walk into my bedroom where I had a desk set up and close the door.  Ending your day with a transition ritual is even more important.  Close your computer, plug in your phone, turn off your light, and leave your workspace.  Take a walk, go work out, have a special beverage (this can be sparkling water in a glass), take 3 cleansing breaths. For me, my transition rituals tend to be family meals: breakfast in the morning, dinner at night.   When our kids were little (and we had never even imagined social distancing), dinner was next to impossible with everyone’s schedule.  So, we had breakfast together every day instead.  It was our family’s transition ritual to start our day together at breakfast.  Now, I end my day with cooking, but I enjoy that.  I cook with whoever I can find in my house and we chat and make dinner together and then eat – no phones.  It takes about 60 minutes normally.  Then we go off to our evening activities, together or separate.

Move Your Body
Work demands a lot from our minds, sometimes at the expense of our bodies.  Everyone in your house has a body and needs to move it.  Figure out what you all like to do, individually or together, and get moving.  I think I’ve always had dogs because it forces me to walk.  I won’t walk myself, but I won’t not walk my dogs.  I also do yoga to keep my back healthy.  My husband is more extreme and likes to run, hike, and lift heavy things.  Our kids spent their childhoods experimenting with all kinds of solo and team sports to figure out what the like to do in their bodies.  When they were little, I made them go outside and play, which meant that I had to go outside and play.  We hiked in any weather.  They’ve played all the team sports that you can’t play right now: baseball, football, hockey, and more.  They mostly settled on karate and mixed martial arts (MMA).  But they also love mountain biking, hiking, and water sports.  We live in the Midwest.  When I can, I kayak.  In the winter, I snowshoe or cross-country ski.  I have chickens for the same reason I have dogs.  It forces me to go outside no matter the weather.  Oh, and eggs.  The eggs are good.

I always feel stupid telling people to hydrate, but people, especially young parents, are chronically dehydrated.  Get a water bottle you like, fill it up, and drink it.  This is important for your kids, too.  Chronic dehydration causes fatigue, lack of focus, memory issues, and general irritability and stupidity. Having a bad day?  Drink some water.  Kids melting down?  Give them some water.  Feeling tired?  Have some water.  I know, I know.  Now you have to pee.  You work from home now.  Take a break, take care of business, and get back to work.

Chill Out
Everyone needs their own retreat space.  Everyone needs their own private space, even if it’s only a bed that they can call their own.  You need to be able to go to your space and have it be yours and nobody else’s.  When my kids were little, my space was the master bathtub because no other space in the house was exclusively mine.  This means that I didn’t let my kids use my bathtub because I didn’t need a ring of child filth in my tub and a bunch of bath toys to dodge.  My bed was shared with my husband and was “our space” and was often shared with one of our unsleeping or sick children.  Now, I share my master bathtub with my grandson and it’s full of child filth and bath toys.  My space is a chair in my bedroom that I read in.  My husband uses his office as his space.  One of my boys uses his garage. One of my boys uses his basement (we live in the Midwest).  One of my daughters in law has set up her master closet as her space with a fuzzy rug, a tiny chandelier, and a tiny table with candles on it.  My younger sons are in college.  At school, they each have only a bed and a desk to call their own. But, it’s theirs.  Make sure you claim some space for chilling out in.

These are just a few quick tips that, hopefully, help you maintain your sanity while working and leading from home with kids.  If there’s anything specific we can help you with, let us know.

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