How to Work From Home With Kids

How to Work From Home With Kids
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When every day becomes "take your kid to work" day, how do parents reframe their productivity without burning out … or being made to feel like you're being pulled in eight directions at once, and seven of those directions are about finding lost shoes and asking why the dog is purple.

Below are 15 tips to help you work more productively, balance your work life with your parenting responsibilities, and not burn out as you work from home with kids. You'll also hear some real-life experiences and advice from parents in the same capsized boat as you.

Work-from-home trends for parents

Parents working from home with their children around isn't a new phenomenon.

However, the pandemic forced a mass exodus out-of-the-offices and into living rooms, leaving parents little time to prepare for their new home-office realities. As schools and childcare centers also closed with each new outbreak, parents found themselves fighting to get work done while also managing to care for their children-turned-colleagues.

Working remotely, even with kids around, has its benefits. Parents can enjoy greater flexibility, financial savings, not having to commute to work, and more time with family.

However, according to an analysis of a Pew Research Center survey, the pandemic has also made it increasingly difficult for parents to balance their professional and familial responsibilities. In that survey, 57% of women and 47% of men say that handling childcare responsibilities in the pandemic has been difficult.

Other surveys, such as this one by theBoardlist and Qualtrics, give similar results. They indicate that—while the pandemic has been difficult for everyone—women still bear the brunt as their work-life boundaries blur.

For workers and business owners alike, there is good news! A recent Catalyst survey found that working moms who have the option to work remotely are 32% less likely to report they intend to leave their job. And 30% of all workers are more likely to stay in their current position if remote work is available.

And Upwork's Freelance Forward report also found that, for those with caregiving responsibilities (like parents), 74% of freelancers say their career allows them to be more available to their family.

Support for parents and improved childcare options are still hurdles that need to be addressed. What is evident, however, is that the working-from-home trend is more likely to turn into a long-term reality. To make the best of it, parents must learn to create functional remote work routines and find a better balance between their work and home lives.

How to work from home with kids

When working from home with the kids in tow becomes your new normal, how do you balance it all? From fixing broken routines to setting new boundaries, from planning children's activities to finding a time and place for Zoom meetings, and from finding an increased sense of independence to knowing when to ask for help, here are some tips for working at home with kids.

1. Set realistic expectations of working from home

Be realistic about what you can achieve while working from home with kids—both when parenting and when working.

At work, you may not get as much done as you're used to, and that's okay. On the flip side, those new to working at home may assume it's an opportunity to spend more time with their kids. In many ways, it is. However, the reality is that you will still need to get work done. Don't allow yourself to feel guilty either way.

Based in Chicago, Heather Sullivan is a Tools Effectiveness Manager at Upwork. As a working from home mother of one, she has learned not to be hard on herself.

"Over the past two years (wow, has it really been that long!), I've become adept at pivoting and resetting expectations. This is incredibly useful in these unprecedented times, but it takes work. My advice to other caregivers is to do what you can, do not beat yourself up—you're doing great, and at the end of the day, all that matters is that the children in your life know they are loved and cared for," says Sullivan.

To help with setting and meeting more realistic expectations, create a routine that suits your new reality. Make room for work, home life, and parenting responsibilities in your schedule. Be strict about your routine whenever possible to make sure you get work done, while also making time for your children.

2. Set clear boundaries

How do you focus on work when your kids are down the hall? By setting clear boundaries—for yourself and for the kids.

One tactic is to set a clear visual cue to let your kids know when it's time to work. This could be as simple as closing the door to your home office or bedroom for a set period of time each day. Visual cues like setting up a paperweight, a sign, or another object to tell them when you're busy can also help.

Mumbua Ndeto is a Corporate Communications Specialist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a mother to a two-year-old son, born right before much of the world shifted to pandemic-induced working from home.

Post-maternity leave, working from home was new to Ndeto, but she believes setting clear boundaries has helped ensure her productivity during the workday.

"I have learned how to set a routine where he only sees me when I leave my room for lunch and in the evening when I close work. He has also accepted the routine that even if I am in the house, he will not disturb me until I open my door. Of course, there are times I will want some daytime cuddles, but we are all pretty disciplined with the schedule," says Ndeto.

Father of two Veli Matti Sauranen agrees. Sauranen is a Customer Success Manager based in Helsinki, Finland. When the kindergartens in Finland closed during the pandemic, Sauranen—like many other parents around the world—had to set boundaries with his toddlers.

"We set up a simple rule: When my home office door was open, they were allowed to walk in and disturb me as much as they liked. But when my door was closed, they were not to open the door or come knocking unless the place was on fire. (I should clarify that my wife was also at home during that time, so the kids weren't amongst themselves.)," Sauranen says.

3. Create a designated workspace

If you haven't already, create a separate area as your dedicated workspace. Ideally, this would be a separate room. However, that's not always possible. In that case, try to set up a workspace in a non-communal area of the house.

As we discussed, set boundaries with your family and create rules for when and how they can get your attention when you're in your workspace. This will make it easier to limit the times work bleeds into personal life and vice versa.

4. Prioritize your most important tasks first

Decide which tasks on your to-do list are most critical and focus on getting those done first. This way, even if the day gets away from you or there is a disruption, your most important tasks are out of the way.

This follows the Eat That Frog time-management principle. Following this will help you stay focused on productive work during your best work hours, and keep you from getting distracted by less important tasks like email or Slack!

Bay Area mother of one Ashley McCarry is the Executive Assistant to the CFO at Upwork. For her, "NOT being tethered to my email has been my biggest productivity hack. I set up my calendar to include designated ’email time.’ I try really hard to abide by these blocks and not to get caught up in the allure of Inbox Zero, or the fake productivity high that comes from multitasking and knocking out an email during a meeting."

5. Communicate your working-from-home situation with your manager

While you may do everything possible to optimize your productivity, disruptions will happen when you're working from home with children. Your kindergartner might have decided to make lunch by starting the oven, there may be bloodcurdling toddler screams in the middle of a video call because a sibling has dared to steal a crayon, or you may even have a real emergency to deal with!

The worst thing you can do is pretend everything is fine. Be upfront with your managers, colleagues, and clients about what your work-from-home schedule looks like when the kids are around. Being transparent is absolutely okay. Let the people who need to know, know that you're juggling work and parenting commitments.

Mexico-based Nikki Hansen is a mother of one and a Social Media Engagement Coordinator at Upwork. In speaking of her own experience, Hansen says, "I'm a relatively new parent who has been managing full-time work from home with parenting for just over a year. I think the most important things I've come to learn are first, that it's okay if you can't do everything all at once, and second, a supportive work environment is key."

Working with your manager to outline a schedule that works for everyone can also be helpful. Communicate your meeting availability and core working hours, so there's no confusion.

6. Ask about flexible work schedules

If your existing schedule makes life difficult while the kids are also at home, speak with your manager about a more flexible schedule. This could mean a few simple changes like starting work earlier in the day or working later to plan around your kids.

Atlanta-based mother of two Sheri Baker is a Customer Advocacy Lead at Upwork. Baker works on a schedule that is flexible enough for her to prioritize her kids.

"Working 8:30 am-4:30 pm enables me to work around my children's schedules. And because I work from home, I can wrap up work at 4:30, and by 4:45, I am with my daughters. Not having a commute means that instead of spending two hours in the car each day, I can spend those two hours doing art projects with my kids, going on nature hikes with them, or just cooking really good, healthy meals for us to enjoy," Baker says.

7. Be mindful of your video call meetings

Having a designated workspace also helps ensure you have a quiet, distraction-free area to take your meetings. Before taking a call, ensure your kids are occupied with activities to avoid unexpected disruptions during your meetings.

If the meeting is particularly important, and the option is available, you may want to ask your partner or another family member to ensure the kids don't interrupt you during your call.

Chrissy Blakey is a Chicago-based Sales Training Program Manager at Upwork and a work-from-home mother of two. She advises that "during a meeting, make sure there is a favorite activity or show to watch, so kiddos don't get bored and come looking for you while you’re on a call with your colleagues."

To avoid disruptions and give herself a break from her bedroom that also functions as her office, McCarry likes to take her meetings outdoors. "Taking meetings on the phone while going on a walk helps me feel productive because I am doing two things at once. A 30-minute walk maybe didn't count as a workout back then, but in this ’new normal,’ it does for me. And if I'm able to squeeze in a workout during the workday, it's one less thing I have to worry about at night."

8. Take scheduled breaks

While building activities into your kids' schedule is essential, it's also crucial that you plan breaks, both for yourself and the kids.

You may be tempted to overextend yourself while working remotely, but not taking regular breaks is a recipe for burnout. In fact, trying to work through the day without any breaks is actually worse for your focus and concentration.

To make sure you don't forget to take breaks, build them into your daily routine. For example, you could take a daily morning, lunch, and afternoon break and set specific times for each break in your calendar. How long you take is up to you, but be sure to take at least 10 or 15 minutes to allow yourself to truly recharge.

These breaks are also a chance to spend quality time with your kids during the workday without feeling guilty about ignoring work.

9. Plan around nap times

For parents of babies and younger children, planning to do your most important work during their nap times may be helpful. You may also like to plan your meetings while your child is asleep.

Create a nap schedule for your child. Younger babies will probably have more naps compared to older children. Each child is different, so plan nap times that suit your kid and your schedule.

Some parents also like to wake up early before the kids wake, or work after the kids are in bed at night, to get extra work done while the children sleep. Communicate with your managers, colleagues, and clients as necessary, so they know you're working a little bit outside of regular business hours.

Content writer Stella Mwangi works from her home in Thika, Kenya, with her young daughter in the other room. After the birth of her daughter, Mwangi quickly learned to get work done while her baby slept.

"Work around your baby's sleep and feeding schedule. I'm a night owl, so I find it easier to work at night after everyone, especially the baby, has settled in for the night. However, take into account your deadlines and time zones. For some, it might be wise to wake up early before the baby wakes up and get your most urgent work done then. What is important is that you leave enough time for the baby during their most active hours," Mwangi says.

10. Create child activities

While you work, keeping children occupied is another key to success. This can include outdoor or unstructured play, as well as learning activities such as:

  • Building LEGO
  • Creating art
  • Doing schoolwork
  • Reading books
  • Playing educational games

Mother of two Kasia Radzka is a financial adviser and author based on the Gold Coast in Australia. Radzka believes planning activities ahead of time has been vital for her productivity while working from home.

She shares advice from her own experience that other parents may find helpful too. "The night before, we make a list of things that my eight-year-old son can do. He contributes to the list, and it can be anything from building LEGO, reading a book, doing a puzzle, school activities to lunch and morning tea breaks, TV time, and free play. Each activity gets a time limit of anything from 30-60 minutes.. When each activity is completed, he puts a sticker star against it. In between, there are also reward activities that he looks forward to—like getting to use the iPad. It also allows me to take a 5-minute break in between the hour-long stretches of concentration, which otherwise wouldn't happen."

Sullivan, who earlier advised work-from-home parents set realistic expectations,  agrees, "Spending time prepping activities ahead of time has been a great way to keep our little one learning, busy, and engaged for periods of time when my husband and I have to focus on work."

11. Find low-cost ways to keep the kids entertained

Keeping children entertained at home doesn't have to be an expensive affair. Having various low-cost activities planned is key to ensuring your kids don't get bored. Some ideas to inspire you:

  • Play dress-up: Give kids clothes, hats, scarves, boots, glasses, and more to use their imagination and play dress-up
  • Create art: Whether it's crayons or watercolor paints, doing something creative is a fun way for kids to stay engaged
  • Encourage make believe: From playing teacher to taking a trip to space, pretend play is great for encouraging the imagination
  • DIY projects: Whether it's building a fort or making a pasta skyscraper, a bit of DIY is always fun for the kids
  • Give them device time: Every parent's savior at least occasionally, this could include allowing them to play games or watch Netflix

In addition to encouraging realistic expectations, Sullivan shares more about the various ways she keeps her little one entertained while his parents work.

"I have several ’stations’ across our home where he can go to play, and each area has different toys. His room has a lot of his building toys and books, he can stay in there, and my husband and I can work in our offices which are on either side of his room. We then have areas in each of our offices so that we can oversee watercolor painting, school work with dot markers, scissors, and glue. Then we have an area set up in our family room where he can play with bigger toys such as his trains and remote control cars.

“Throughout the day, we rotate through these areas. The goal is to keep boredom low by exposing him to a simple rotation of activities. Since each of these areas are already set up and stocked with toys, educational materials, craft supplies, we can quickly move between meetings, emails, and Slack messages.

12. Think about child care options

If at-home help with your child is out of the question, you may also like to consider child care options if they are available to you.

Dropping your kid off at child care—even a few days a week—can be very helpful for getting focus work done while they are away.

13. Consider getting extra help at home

If things are getting overwhelming and you're not getting much work done with the kids at home, you could consider organizing help. This could mean hiring a daytime babysitter or carer to help watch the kids. If the option is available to you, this could also mean asking a family member like a grandparent to watch the kids (even if it's a few days a week) so you can get work done.

Asking for extra help is often hard for parents. However, without this help, getting work done can be challenging, and might further exacerbate stress for parents. Paying for at-home help can, of course, be expensive, but for many parents being able to work from home productively makes the cost worth it.

For Hansen, part of creating a supportive work environment is to remember that, "It's okay—and sometimes imperative—to ask for help during the week so you can buckle down and focus on more pressing tasks, or those tasks which require undivided attention."

14. Have patience with kids (and yourself)

Working from home with the kids around can often feel stressful as you try to juggle the multiple tasks and responsibilities between home and work. However, it's important to remember that the situation can be hard on children too.

Be patient with them. For them, understanding why they are at home with you yet can't spend time with you is often hard. Even if you're having a hard day, keep your cool and don't let your stresses get the best of you.

Practice gratitude and focus on the positives (having more time with your family, avoiding the commute, etc) on the hard days.

For Sullivan, being patient with her child goes hand-in-hand with having realistic expectations. She cements this in practice with an end-of-day ritual. "At the end of the day, I always verbally thank my little one for how helpful/engaged/creative/insert positive adjectives he was. I know these unexpected days are not only hard on my husband and me, I know they can be a struggle for him as well, and I always want him to know how much I appreciate him hanging in there with us."

Above all, be kind to yourself. Know you're not alone. Don't forget that you're human—as are your kids. Stay flexible. There may be days when everything falls apart, and nothing goes to plan. Take a deep breath and give yourself grace. You—and your kids—are doing the best you can.

And while McCarry shared productivity optimization advice earlier, she understands that the situation will never be perfect.  "Being at home full time and working with a toddler in the house, I've realized any flexibility I can give myself is a win. For me, this can be as small as, some days, needing to get dressed and making my bed (my husband and I both work out of our bedroom!) before my first meeting of the day. Other days, staying in my jams with an unmade bed just off-camera is how it needs to be for the first half of the day."

15. Think about backup plans

When kids are involved, having a backup plan is always a good idea. What do you do if your child is sick? If they break something? If they don’t answer when you call their name to check on them?

Walk yourself through a few potential "what-if" scenarios and have a plan in mind for what you would do. This could mean having to take a day off, or it could mean calling on a family member to help. Weigh all your options so you're prepared when disaster strikes.

Freelancing can help you create the work-from-home flexibility you need

If you're craving more flexibility in your days, especially as you try to juggle and balance your work and parenting responsibilities, you may want to consider becoming a freelancer.

In fact, Upwork's Freelance Forward report found that flexibility and freedom are key motivators for new and existing freelancers. Transitioning to freelancing allows many parents the flexibility that is missing in their full-time jobs. As freelancers, they gain the freedom to set their own hours, work around their kids, and build a business that helps them create a better work-life balance.

Ready to get started? Sign up for a freelancer account on Upwork to start building your freelancing business today.

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Author Spotlight

How to Work From Home With Kids
Radhika Basuthakur
Content Writer

Radhika is a self-confessed word nerd and content expert with over 15 years of experience writing content for businesses around the world. She is a cheerleader for flexible work, a passionate world traveler, and spends her free time alternating between a good book and a good hike.

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