Balancing Work and Family During the COVID-19 Pandemic

One of the most frequent questions and concerns I’ve heard in the last few weeks is how to best work from home and stay productive when the kiddos are around. As with all time management and productivity tools and strategies -even under normal circumstances-, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The best system depends on the type of work we do, the ages of our children, our workspace, and our unique family dynamics.

Good, timely communication among family members is essential when working from home.

However, some approaches apply to all of us regardless of our individual circumstances:

  • The workspace -ideally with a door and natural light. This is essential when there are children in the house. By having a quiet, dedicated workspace, we can achieve a critical purpose: the appropriate mindset to start the workday. Also, proximity to everything we need (computer, printer, office supplies, etc.) and boundaries.

  • Divide and conquer. We should get together with our partner once a week and check both our schedules. Then decide when each of us can take care of the children and take on meal prep duties. If the cooperation of a partner is not possible, we should consider enlisting the help of an older child to keep an eye on the younger ones. If a young child is being homeschooled, older siblings can help with that too. The objective is to make time for focused work without worrying about what's going on outside our workspace.

  • Simplify. We all miss the spotless houses we had just a few weeks ago. We could still have them, of course, but at what price? Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us had help, or we did house chores while the children were at school. Now that we need to help them with schoolwork and can't rely on outside help, trade-offs are a must. I'm a big fan of default decisions and routine simplification. Why not take care only of the essential house chores, go for simple meal menus, and, for the time being, lower our standards a bit, and in exchange, stress less and find much-needed peace of mind?

  • Minimize interruptions. This is a complicated one to pull off when working from home. Young children are used to our full attention when we're home, so now it's hard for them to understand that the circumstances have changed. However, it's important to set boundaries. We could use a timer to indicate our availability (by scheduling frequent short breaks,) wear headphones (visual sign), or do focus work when the kids are asleep.

  • Self-care. It's easy, during these unusual times, to forget that we need and deserve time for ourselves. Pandemic or not, we're always there for family, friends, coworkers, neighbors. We do what we can to help them, console them, cheer for them, we're there. But what about us? We must carve out time for self-care. Fortunately, self-care comes in different forms, and there are many opportunities for self-care at home. A relaxing warm bath, streaming our favorite Netflix series, a video call with college classmates, a virtual happy hour -glass of wine in hand, of course- with our best friends, quiet reading time, a peaceful walk around the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning. Expressive writing? Why not!

  • Mark the beginning and the end. Not so long ago, we would get into our office midset while driving to work. On the way back home, we would decompress and slowly get into our home mindset. Now that transition is gone. So, what should we do now? Make one up! I suggest coming up with a brief ritual to mark both the start and end of work time. It can be something as simple as mindfully sitting at your desk in the morning, turning your computer on and saying "I'm ready, let's start!" At the end of the workday, turn it off with an "I'm done for today" and stepping out of your office for the rest of the day.

Since many of my friends are dealing with work while taking care of their kids, I thought it would enlighten me to find out how they were managing, what is working for them, and what is not. Here are the shared strategies they're applying in one form or another:

Find the right mix of structure and flexibility.

First, planning structured days with no more than a handful of work and family goals while keeping in mind the need to be flexible. Second, relaxing their standards; they know things will get back to normal at some point, so they’re doing their best to keep up with their work, keep their houses in order, and themselves healthy. And the third strategy is allowing their children to spend some extra time with their electronics. Here they agree that this is an exception. If the kiddos have unregulated access to their devices, when we need them to be quiet for a while, the screens won't necessarily sound enticing and we won't have that quiet time we need.

My friend Maru has three kids ranging from first grade to high school, and she has three key strategies that are working effectively for her family. First, she takes it one day at a time. She isn't worried about next week or next month. For her, there's no point in worrying today about an uncertain future. Second, she sets her work goals for the day; once the work is done, she's out of her home office for the rest of the day. Luckily, her work is flexible, so she wakes up before everybody else to get work done, and then spends quality time with her kids until bedtime. The last strategy she favors is creating a simple routine to transition from work to family time.

My friend Carolina's decision to let her teenage sons be fully responsible for their own schoolwork, allows her to dedicate more time to her little daughter's kindergarten projects. Whenever she's tied up in virtual meetings or phone calls, the older brothers keep their sister entertained and safe.

It doesn't matter what best practices for remote work are out there, each family is different, and no single time management or productivity approach works for everyone. Family members need to communicate and agree on the best plan for them. Being aware of the resources help, yet the final answer will be designed by each family. At the end of the day, the best strategy is the one that works for the whole family.

What about you? Have you been able to flowless balance work and family in the last few weeks? What are your challenges? Share your story below, I would love to hear from you!

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