Working from home can be a challenge at any time, but in the current climate, you aren’t likely to be home alone. So let’s talk about the elephants in the room – the crying baby, the toddler throwing a tantrum, the squabbling tweens, the sulky adolescent, the ever-hungry uni student… and even your spouse, who may well be trying to run their own business from the other side of the kitchen table.
It’s all very well turning to the usual recommendations of finding a quiet, dedicated space to work in, keeping to a routine, etc., but even if you are fortunate enough to be able to shut the door on the rest of your family, you can’t guarantee that the door will stay shut or that the familial discord – or exuberance – won’t filter through. So what can you do?
Obviously, everyone’s situation is different: not just the makeup of the family, but also the facilities available in the house. Even so, these first few points are about mindset and apply across the board.
If you and your spouse or partner have to share a workspace for the first time – especially if it’s an improvised space, you are likely to discover all sorts of things about them that you didn’t know; and some of what you learn will be things you won’t like.
Overhearing their phone calls, you may discover that they use the kind of blue-sky and buzzworthy jargon that drives you crazy. If you catch sight of their desktop, or see them take the long way round to copy and paste, you may be very tempted to “help” them be more efficient. Don’t. They are adults and have managed to get by in their careers without your assistance up till now. At most, offer assistance, but don’t insist that they do things your way. After all, no one loves a know-it-all and when you both close down your laptops and call it a day, you have to go on living with them.
Remember, too, that your spouse’s work is just as important as yours: you probably won’t be the only one with calls to make and deadlines to meet, so be prepared to take responsibility for your share of domestic duties or accept that these are not going to get done.
How you cope with children at home will depend a lot on what age they are. If they are old enough, do try and involve them in the arrangements and allow them space to make suggestions for how everyone’s needs can be catered for. Don’t impose a new routine and new house rules without letting everyone express their opinion. And listen to everyone else, too: they might have good ideas that wouldn’t occur to you!
By laying down clear guidelines about how and when you’re all going to use the different household spaces – and by observing these yourself – you’ll make everyone’s life simpler. If you have to work at the kitchen table, for example, try and leave your video calls to clients until you can be sure that everyone in your household will be up and have had breakfast.
Clear rules, boundaries and routines, with regular scheduled breaks, where everyone can get a drink or a snack, ask questions – or run around screaming if necessary, can make the day a lot easier to manage for everyone.
It will be easier to manage, too, if snacks are prepared ahead of time and school supplies are accessible: the more independent the children can be, the less they will need to interrupt you.
There may be specific set tasks that have to be completed and submitted, and there may be video sessions and timetables to be followed, but remember that this is a stressful time for everyone and some flexibility will be necessary.
If there are two parents at home, it could be helpful to share childcare duties: Perhaps your work can be organised so that one of you makes calls and does work that requires full focus in the morning, while the other works on less taxing tasks that allow them to take more frequent breaks and keep an eye on how the children are getting along. Then you can swap roles for the afternoon.
If the children have specific schoolwork – a set of maths problems, for example – you can set them to do it unsupervised; just make sure they know how long they will have to wait before you’ll be available to help them. Remember that they may get upset if they get stuck on one of the questions, and if you aren’t there to help them, they may simply grind to a halt. Here, it’s important to explain that if they get stuck, it’s OK to skip to the next question: that may seem obvious to you as an adult, but a child may need to know they have permission to deviate from a linear approach.
Remember that this situation isn’t going to last forever, and that schoolwork is not everything. If your children don’t have to follow a set timetable, don’t worry about covering every subject each day. See what happens if you allow them some say in what they choose to study.
Children learn best when they are interested and involved in what they are learning, so, to some extent, any activity that keeps them engaged will be beneficial: if your child spends a whole afternoon on an art or craft project, writing a story or reading a book, they are learning vital life skills of concentration, focus and self-reliance. Household chores are also good for developing responsibility and independence; older children may even enjoy taking on kitchen duties while parents are working.
If you have two or more children of different ages, you may be able to get them to work together on a project. Be careful, though, that this doesn’t force the older one into the role of teacher or babysitter: it’s tempting to rely on older siblings, but try not to take them for granted.
The strongest tool you have to deal with this situation is communication: talk to your family, to your spouse, to your employer, to your clients: if you have to spend half your day looking after your child, make sure that people know that you won’t be as productive as you usually are. No one likes to be let down, so don’t promise more than you can deliver.
Finally, remember that this is only temporary. We don’t have a crystal ball and can’t see how long this will last or when we’ll be “back to normal”. In fact, it’s unlikely that the world will ever be quite the same: we will have lost loved ones and learned to cope with fewer non-essentials. Perhaps, though, we’ll come out the other side being more resilient, more adaptable, and less likely to take anyone, or anything we have, for granted.
Gwyneth Box has teaching qualifications in Montessori nursery education and in adult education (RSA Dip. TEFLA). She is Director at Tantamount, a full-service creative agency that specialises in simplifying the complex and communicating unfamiliar concepts clearly through well-chosen words and thoughtful design. If you have important or difficult messaging that you need to get across to clients, staff or other stakeholders, why not get in touch and have a chat? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0798 661 3437.