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How to work from home and look after children at the same time

Working from home sounds like a great idea. There’s no commute, no distractions, you can dress down and you’ll never miss the postman. But what if you have to work from home and look after children at the same time? With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic now disrupting travel, childcare and schools, that’s the challenge facing huge numbers of working parents.

Hopefully, employers are going to be flexible and understanding. And, who knows, maybe this is is going to lead to a radical change in the way we all work. But if you are staring down the barrel of a long stretch of combining working from home with looking after children, here are a few ideas that might help:

Take it in turns

If your partner is in the same situation, co-ordinate your schedules so that one of you is working and one is doing the childcare. You could work alternate days or divide the day between you. Negotiate clearly on your crunch issues (and make sure it isn’t one partner’s work that always takes priority).

Build a team

If you are on your own working at home, team up with other local parents (if it is safe and permitted to do so). To maintain social distancing, you should avoid children visiting each other’s houses. But, for example, one parent might be able to take a couple of children on a bike ride to free up another parent for work commitments. (Do check current local guidance first.)

Chunk the day

If your children are old enough to amuse themselves without constant supervision, then set them up in 30/60 minute activities and work in short chunks.

Signal when you’re not available

Set some clear ground rules for the children so they understand what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to your work. I used a traffic light system on my home office door when I had to work from home and look after children at the same time. Green meant I was ok to be disturbed. Yellow meant, only disturb me if it is important. And Red meant, don’t enter this room unless the house is actually on fire. If you have a really important phone call to make, tell the kids in advance. Explain how long it will last and what they should do if they absolutely desperately must get your attention. Hold out the promise of some lovely Mummy/Daddy time at the end of the call if they have been quiet. (See Making reward charts work)

Be upfront that you are multi-tasking

The vast majority of colleagues and clients will be totally understanding of your situation. And you certainly aren’t going to be the only parent forced to work from home and look after children at the same time given the current situation. So just be honest and upfront about it. At the beginning of a call or virtual meeting explain the situation and that there is a chance you will be interrupted by a little one. Then, if/when it happens, you’ll feel a lot less stressed.

Work early and late

If you are blessed with a late sleeper child, set your alarm early and get a few hours work done before they wake up. If that leaves you tired, then join your child in their afternoon nap. Lots of home-working parents utilise the evenings after children are in bed to fit in some work if they can’t manage it during the day. However:

Draw clear boundaries around work

Some managers have been known to think that if you are working from home that means you are available to them 15 hours a day. So be clear with work colleagues on your working pattern each day and draw boundaries around when you are not available. Shared diaries are particularly helpful for this.

stressed mum trying to work at home with children

Stick to their routine

Older children may have online learning provided by school. Try to stick to a similar schedule as the school day, with regular breaks. Young children are especially prone to more challenging behaviour when they are tired or hungry, so if you can keep to their regular sleep and mealtime routines, that will help.

Get outside

If it is safe to do so and the weather is good, take the kids plus picnic and blanket to a local green space. Let them burn off some energy while you snatch some time to make calls whilst also keeping an eye on them. If you have a garden, dedicate the lunch hour to physical activities to tire out the kids. How about a mini Olympics? Children will be more likely to stay engaged in quieter activities later (while you work) if they are already tired.

Plan games and activities

It is worth investing a little time researching, planning and prepping some engaging activities to keep little kids entertained. And even school-aged children will need lots of downtime from structured learning. Children love novelty so each day try to have an idea up your sleeve for a game or activity they have never done before. Because there are only so many hours of Lego anyone can play before the whole family will go crazy! (See Indoor play ideas for young children and 101 ideas for supporting your child’s development)

Use tech strategically

Tempting as it is to stream movies 24hrs a day or provide unlimited access to the iPad, try to be strategic. Remove screens from those bits of the day when you are not working so that tech is there as a last resort if you are desperately trying to hit a deadline. That means, if you usually let the kids watch TV while you shower and get dressed, you’ll need to reorder your day so that they don’t blow their whole day’s tech time allowance before you’ve even started work.

Cut yourself some slack

Trying to work from home and look after children at the same time is enough on your plate. So maybe take your foot off the pedal when it comes to other demands like housework. Or, if you are temperamentally unsuited to mess, at least make sure you divvy up the work fairly. Expect partners and older kids to do their bit so the workload is shared fairly. And so you all get to enjoy this extra bit of family time.

Don’t neglect self-care

It’s easy for stress to get the better of working parents, even at the best of times. We often de-prioritise our own well-being because there is simply so much to do. A global pandemic, when there are lives and livelihoods under threat, is going to challenge the worry levels of even the most laid back character. Neglecting self-care won’t be good for us or our children. Because when we don’t look after ourselves, we quickly deplete our resources for looking after others and for being the calm consistent parent we aspire to be. So prioritise little bits of self-care and take a few minutes regularly to stretch and breathe. Stop working, have a cup of tea and listen to a funny podcast to take your mind off things and recharge. (See Self-care ideas for busy parents)

Got some great tips on combining work and children? Do share them in the comments below. And please stay safe in these challenging times.

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©Anita Cleare 2020

how to work from home and look after children at the same time

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