Help! COVID-19 might close the schools. How am I supposed to work from home?
I’m a single mom entrepreneur.
For three years, I’ve worked from home running a successful Shopify e-Commerce agency, BrightBird Experts, while caring for my two daughters, currently aged 3 and 6. It hasn’t always been easy, but I love my life and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Over the past few years, I’ve become something of an expert in the mindset and habits that enable someone to work productively, from home, with kids.
With the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19 and related quarantines, it’s increasingly looking like my “normal” is going to become everyone’s new normal for a while.
So, here’s my top tips for making the best of remote work, in an era of social distancing. Even when the kids are home.
Prepare Your Workspace
If you’re used to heading to the office for your nine-to-five, the first thing you need to sort out is where in your house you’re going to work.
If you already have a home office, great. But that’s not everyone’s reality, so perhaps you’re going to have to think creatively.
Could you transform a smaller space in your home into a dedicated workspace? A corner of your living room, perhaps, or even a large closet?
Wherever it is, make it your own — add good lighting, and decide where you’re going to put your coffee cup. Make sure you have everything you need close at hand. If you’re primarily working on your laptop, you can even create a portable office with a lap desk. Heck, use a cookie sheet if you’re in a pinch. (Don’t use a pillow. Laptops overheat. But a pillow with a cookie sheet on top of it was my lap desk for a long time.)
Once your workspace is established, aim to do work (and only work) when you’re in that space. There’s power in consistency. The goal is to set up a space in your home which tells your body and your mind “I’m at work now”… so that you’re not distracted by your home life, which is probably right outside the door.
Set Your Schedule
The good news is that you’ve got more hours in the day, especially if you’re used to having a long commute.
Now’s the time to set a daily schedule that works for you and for your family. With the spatial boundaries between home and work merged, the time boundaries between home and work become all the more significant to your productivity.
And what you’ll probably discover is that something other than nine-to-five is what suits everyone best.
Those of us who have been working from home with kids for years know that the best hours of the day to work, uninterrupted, are when everyone else is sleeping.
Some people are night owls, and some people perform their best in the wee hours of the morning. Know thyself, and then build your schedule around it. Set your schedule in such a way that you can get a good block of work in — three or four hours — while your littles are sleeping. Kids need more sleep than you do. Use those extra hours wisely.
Setting a schedule also means keeping your work and home life separate. When you were at the office, you never took a break to change over the laundry or clean the kitchen. If you’re working from home, don’t be distracted by housework or other tasks — that’s called “procrastiworking.” Resist. Whatever it is, it can wait. If your whole family is suddenly home 24/7, things are going to get a little messy. Don’t worry about it. This too shall pass.
Remember that your daily schedule includes start times and end times. Respect both. Start working when you plan to, and stop working when you plan to, even if you haven’t accomplished everything on your to-do list. Once you’re on a roll, it might be hard to stop working, but it’s so important for your own wellness to put clear boundaries on your work hours, and rest in between them.
Set Expectations for Your Family
Make it very obvious to everyone (including yourself!) when you’re “at work” and when you’re “at home.” Close the door (if you have one.) If there’s no door to your workspace, then find another visual signal to everyone that you’re working and that you can’t be disturbed — headphones, earplugs, wearing your “work hat,” whatever works.
Little kids are going to be far more inclined to respect your boundaries if you let them know when you will be available to them. Set a timer or a sand hourglass that makes it clear that in one hour, for instance, you’re all going to take a break together to have a snack.
Hire Help, If You Can
If schools are closed in your area, you might well be able to find a local big kid who can care for your kids while you work. If you have older kids yourself, seriously consider paying them for the trouble of keeping their younger siblings occupied while you work.
And if you’re in the unenviable position of having to be in charge of little kids while you’re working (been there, done that) then plan out — in advance — which truly engaging activities you will set out that can reliably occupy your children for an hour or two. Play Doh. Water play. Pipe cleaners, pompoms, and glue. And yes, screen time.
Do make sure that your kids are getting enough exercise. The exercise is good for you, too! I’ve found a magic combo for my little kids is something that’s high energy (like a dance party or racing around the backyard) followed up by something quieter, like beading, coloring, or listening to an audiobook. I slip away during the quiet time and can reliably get some computer work done, uninterrupted.
Use the Tools Remote Teams Use
The rise of the gig economy has meant that tools made for remote teams have come a long way in the past few years.
Video conferencing solutions — like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, and Webex — are stable, reliable, and effortless to set up. Google and Cisco have extended their trials and usage limits because of the spread of coronavirus, so using top-of-the-line teleconferencing solutions won’t even come with a hefty price tag.
Whatever everyday office activity you’re missing, there’s probably an app that can help.
Miss your informal brainstorming sessions in the lunchroom? Look into setting up an office Slack group. Need to show someone at the office what you’re working on? Recording a quick screenshare video with Loom will get the job done quickly and easily.
Be Kind to Yourself and Think Long-Term
Don’t expect super-human feats of productivity on day one of your work-from-home adventure.
Learning new skills is hard, for you and for your family. And let’s admit it, the circumstances are not ideal — you didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this.
Take stock at the end of each day. What worked? What didn’t? Day by day, you and your family will get better at living and working together in close quarters.
You’re not alone in this transition. Families like yours are finding new ways to make do all over the world. I’m here to attest that it can be done.
One thing that keeps me motivated is to think about the long-term benefits. If you get this right — if you really do manage to balance work and life under non-ideal circumstances — you’ll reap huge rewards.
Working from home during the coronavirus crisis is precisely the kind of life experience that will build your ability to focus, to work smarter (not harder), and to learn to live in the moment, applying yourself fully to your work while at work, and fully to your family when you’re at home.
And don’t forget to live a little. Schedule a mid-day ice cream break into your day.
Couldn’t do that at the office, could you?