How to work at home with kids and not be a sucky parent or lousy employee

The answers are surprising. I asked my followers: ‘How are you and your family doing during the COVID 19 lockdown? What do you need most right now?' Almost everybody kept a positive attitude. But when it came to their kids: not so much. A barrage of counter-questions followed: 'How can we work from home with a three-year-old running around?' 'What can we do without them distracting us from working?' 'What if they bomb the video call with my client?'

Easy answers for me. My wife, Ann, and I have worked from home for eleven years, side-by-side, while raising our now 9-year old son. Here is what we learned.

Kill the 9-to-5

Let’s face it. Working with kids at home requires a lot of flexibility. The 9-to-5 mentality will no longer do. And that is a good thing because it is an outdated model from the last century. The 9-to-5 workday was invented by American labor unions in the 1800s and went mainstream courtesy of Henry Ford in the 1920s to streamline factory shifts.

We live in different times today - even before COVID 19. A global workforce has made the 9-5 day obsolete. Think about it. Have you actually ever liked getting out of bed, rushing the kids to school, and driving to the office at eight in the morning? Staying until five. Five days a week. With two rest days. Then back at it again. Every week?

Ann and I love cultivating a slow family, wake up without an alarm, enjoying breakfast together, strolling out the door to get our son to school. No, the latter is not an option right now – as it has not been for years during holidays, summer and winter breaks, for example. We know what to do.

Be Realistic

When working with kids from home, 9-to-5 is out of the window. You will get interrupted by your children. A lot. And they have an excellent sense of doing this at the worst time. Or so it feels because, in reality, when you serve your clients from home, there is never a good time.

Develop patience. Imagine how your behavior will be remembered when everybody looks back at this time. You want to be proud of how well you managed your state. The younger your kids are, the more grace you should allow yourself. Don't only expect interruptions but cherish them.

It also means that you might have to work way past 5 pm on most days, and sometimes you will even have to respond to emails late at night. For Ann and me, it is not uncommon, albeit rare, that we are on calls at 11 pm. The upside is that we allow ourselves multiple breaks during the day during which we connect as a family, eat together, re-energize, and practice mind-body activation.

It's not about work-life balance. To me, this is the most abused and misused term in the modern workspace. The concept first appeared in the US and the UK in the '80s when the Women's Liberation Movement advocated for flexible schedules and maternity leave for women when smartphones, email, video chat, and other collaboration apps were not yet invented or not as readily available as they are today. The goal was to enable mothers to not be constraint by a typical 9-to-5 workday when minding their children.

We all know that there is no balance there. Women just gained more options to rush from one job to the next. Raising children, as man either have learned or are now learning, is hard work. Rewarding work, yes, but not easy labor. 

The term work-life balance is a marketing stunt, albeit well-meant concepts advocated by many human resources teams. 

There is no work-life balance. There is only life. And it includes work, children, recreation, grooming, and eating. Ditch the 9-to-5. Embrace, enjoy, and live life all day and not just outside traditional working hours.

And, by the way, you will be surprised by how many people are amenable to evening phone calls.

Plan your Day

Adopt the 20/20/20 rule when you wake. Stretch for 20 minutes (yoga flow will also do), read something inspiring for 20 minutes (not the news), and then plan for 20 minutes what you want to achieve during the day.

Ann and I use the High Performance Planner by Brendon Burchard, and it is one of our most potent planning tools ever - not just for work, for life.

Structure your day so that it includes life, not just work.

Your kids need more structure than you do, especially without a school schedule. How granular you get with your daily schedule depends on how old your kids are and what their conative strengths are. Babies have different needs from teenagers. Some kids need a high amount of physical activation throughout the day, while others are comfortable studying for extended periods. 

Schools typically do not allow for the unique ways our children learn. Now is the chance to make it happen for your children.

For our 9-year old, a schedule can look like this:

  • 8 am – Wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, do morning chores
  • 9 am – Playtime
  • 10 am – Study
  • 11:30 am – Practice piano
  • Noon – Quality screen time (must be educational)
  • 1 pm –Lunch
  • 2 pm –Read a book
  • 3 pm –Play outside (weather permitting)
  • 4 pm - Quality screen time (must be educational)
  • 5 pm –Play outside (weather permitting)
  • 7 pm – Dinner
  • 8 pm – Screen time – fun
  • 9 pm – Wind down and go to bed
  • 10 pm – Sleep

Yes, that’s a fair amount of screen time. But we’re going easy on ourselves because this is a marathon, not a sprint.

I got criticized a lot in the 90s and 2000s for how much I allowed my older son to watch TV and play on the computer. They said it would make him dumb and render him unfit for the job market. But he eventually landed a six-figure job a half year before he graduated from Georgetown University. 

It wasn’t so bad, after all. It is also true that quality matters. Barney, Sponge Bob Squarepants, Teletubbies, Power Rangers, and most of Nickelodeon have been banned in our house. Instead, we are fully tuned in to children’s programs, channels, and apps that stimulate creative thinking. 

We have more options now, but the focus on generating brainpower and creativity has remained unchanged.

For you, as a parent, this also means that you will need to structure your work around your kids’ schedules. Be prepared to start work late, return to it after dinner, and finish late as the day requires. 

In general, make sure you do your most creative work first, not exceeding four hours. Genius only has time for four hours. Fit in your calls, Zoom meetings with the office, emails, and repetitive tasks throughout the rest of the day.

Do not want to leave your most mentally challenging activities for the late evening when you are tired.

Cherish Streamed Content

If you want to limit screen time, try podcasts. There are so many of them from which kids can learn a lot, sometimes without even realizing it. Start here:

  • But Why; A Podcast for Curious Kids
  • Brains On –A science show for kids
  • The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
  • Pants on Fire

If you opt for screen time, my favorites are:

  • Inbestigators
  • Brainchild
  • Wild Kratts
  • Crashbox (HBO)

There are also loads of great documentaries that kids as young as four can enjoy:

  • Night on Earth
  • Life (BBC Earth)
  • Blue Planet
  • Ancient Aliens (I am just kidding. This one if me.)

And for enjoyment:

  • The BFG
  • Happy Gilmore (Also kidding. I love it. Ann doesn’t. Not for children.)
  • Boxtrolls
  • Legend of the Guardians
  • Mowgli, Legend of the Jungle
  • Book of Life
  • Shrek
  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
  • The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
  • Missing Link

Set boundaries for your kids

If they are old enough to understand what’s going on, be clear about how independent you expect them to be while you are working. Let them know when it’s OK to interrupt you (e.g., they are bleeding), and when it’s not (e.g., their favorite app won’t load). 

I have a different rule than most. My sons have always been allowed to call and interrupt me at any time. But I have also expected them to problem solve according to their abilities before they do. Make some time to teach them how to find solutions and understand the difference between something that is important and urgent and what is important but can wait (‘The TV is not turning on.’).

Manage Expectations with Your Clients

In the last 15 years, I went from having Webex calls in a suit and tie with teams huddled in offices to having Zoom calls with up to 100 people sitting in different locations. Almost no one wears a suit and tie anymore - apart from British and Irish people. It’s shirts for many, T-Shirts for an increasing number of professionals. Pants? No one cares because we cannot see them. Pajamas, however, are no-nos.

The entire online culture has loosened up dress codes, which I love. Who would be so shallow to judge a person’s quality and ability by how they dress?

It is also normal for me that my client's children play in the background, dogs bark in the adjacent room, cats jump on keyboards, or FedEx drivers deliver a package while on a call. Especially with Senior Directors and Vice Presidents in Fortune 500 companies.

Unfortunately, there is a bit of a hierarchy there. The higher up the person, the more patient the other meeting participants appear. The lower the rank, the less you will be forgiven. Power interruptions have replaced power ties.

It is best to keep such interruptions at a minimum and let teams know of them in advance. Put yourself on mute when you are at risk.

Manage Expectations with Your Team

You will not be sitting glued to your desk from 9-to-5. I think I have made that clear already. Most likely, you will be attending to your kids, cooking meals, running errands throughout the day, sometimes unexpected.

Ask your team to allow for some slack. Chances are, some of your coworkers find themselves in similar situations and will appreciate that the same will be granted to them. Consider having core hours or fixed dates for meetings during which everybody is available.

In the end, it all comes down to managing life. As for me, I enjoy going to my barber on Monday morning when they are empty, but I am also prepared to go on a Zoom call at 10 pm.

If your son or daughter is fussing during your office hours and it's a beautiful day, it's OK to push assignments aside and play outside. You can catch up on work later when your cutie has settled down.

Remember physical activity

That’s true for all of you. Remember to activate your mind-body connection. A vibrant mind feeds on an active body.

Neither you or your kids should be glued to the desk or screen. Get off the chair and move your bodies every hour. Pick a quick yoga routine on YouTube, take a short walk, dance to a silly song. It will refresh your mind and body. You will also energize.

I don’t want you to be exhausted at night. Instead of burning out during the day and recovering over a glass of wine at night, I want to continuously burn and recover. Little body-mind activation breaks help everybody to feel more connected and reduce interruptions.

Ask Siri, Alexa, or Cortana to remind you to move every hour or set alarms manually on your phone. This is an excellent opportunity to check in regularly with your kids and re-energize yourself without being away from the desk for too long.

Better yet, get outside. Take a brisk walk together. Ride the bike. Public playgrounds probably are not the best option right now, but backyards and open parks can come to the rescue, even if you don’t have a swing set. Classics like hide and seek, tag, and catch anyone?

Enlist Help

Enlist your spouse’s or partner’s help. Communicate what your day is like. 

Ann and I are always in tune about who has what meetings and when. 

Sometimes, we have meetings at the same time, but we are always clear who will have the first responsibility to look after our son or prepare dinner.

Be on the same page with your expectations and needs.

For example, if you are beating a deadline and need to focus, let your spouse or partner know. They can get the kids out of the house for a while, and they will know that it will be their responsibility to prepare dinner. 

If you have a lighter workday with more flexibility, offer to take the kids for an hour at lunch so your partner can have a break. Ann tends to work in the kitchen or living room in the morning to have an eye on our son. In the evening she prefers the office, so we switch. On some days, we switch multiple times.

It can also help to put a sign on your office door to let your family know when you’re on an important call, especially when those calls are unexpected. 

Separate Parent and Business Roles 

To separate mentally from the rest of the house, set up an office area. You may convert a guest room into an office. Even an empty closet can work as a kid-free zone that helps to detach from the rest of her house. 

Ann often uses our dinner table, and family dinners are exclusively around the kitchen island during the week.

What do to with Babies

People working from home with babies have a lot working against them — sleep deprivation and near-constant care.

  • Wear that baby. When our son was born, Ann and I walked around with him during the day as often as we could. Physical touch is so important to them. Give it generously. We also made sure that someone talks to him all the time. Science confirms what grandmothers have always known: The higher the number of words babies hear from their parents or caregivers before they are 3, the higher their IQ and the better will they do in school. All of this makes it easier for you to work from home when they are older as they become more independent also.
  • Be clear on what work tasks will still matter in five years. If they don't, it's OK to postpone, delegate, or drop them, but that is never true for your baby.
  • Schedule calls in the evenings if it works for you and your sources.
  • Experiment with doing your most creative work in the early morning before the baby wakes up.
  • Work with apps that you can access from different devices. I often start writing my blog on my laptop in the office and complete it on my iPad in the kitchen. I edit my online training courses on my iPhone and then upload videos overnight from my office laptop. Flexibility is vital, and working with cloud-based tools makes it happen.
  • Be kind to yourself. No parent is perfect. I do not have all the wisdom, either. I can unequivocally and without absence of mind guarantee you that I don't. But the fact that you are still reading this blog tells me that you already are a terrific parent. What's more important than being perfect all the time is that you are authentic all the time and communicate your values in how you handle yourself.
  • So, enjoy that baby.

What to do with Toddlers

  • Loosen up screentime. I have talked about it before. It's not as bad as some people want you to believe. In fact, no one really knows if screen time is good or bad and how much is too much. There is not enough scientific evidence to give firm guidelines to parents. Human lives are extraordinarily complex, and no study can do justice to the innumerable variables at work in your particular family. Maybe screen time is indeed bad for your kids, but not as bad as your parenting when you are stressed. Or maybe it’s good, but less good than reading a book to them. Maybe screen time has powerful educational benefits; but that depends on what they are watching and on what they are doing when not glued to the tablet. Don't be so hard on yourself. Follow your intuition.
  • Be flexible.
  • Take turns if there’s another adult in the house.
  • Enjoy that toddler. No really.

What to do with Early School-Aged Kids

  • Loosen up on screentime. You won’t ruin them. Read the first bullet point under 'What to do with Toddlers.'
  • Start a movie just before an important call. Make sure it's one they will watch. This may not be the vest time for BBC Nature or Nat Geo.
  • Look for online games that reinforce learning and are fun. Khan Academy anyone?
  • Tell them what you need. They might not listen. But they are capable at this age.
  • Hug them as often as you can. Tell them how much you love them and how proud you are of them. Be specific in pointing out the observable behavior that you want from them. Saying: 'You are a good boy' is only acceptable for dogs. Your early-schooler needs you to give them more specific and pragmatic positive re-inforcement. We tend to be very detailed when they do something wrong but very broad in our praise. Reverse that trend.
  • Read the bullet point above again.
  • Enjoy that little kid.

What to do with Elementary Schoolers

  • Give them a fun way to communicate with you.
  • Set expectations and give rewards when they meet them. Err on the side of too many hugs and kisses and too much specific praise. 
  • Work together to create a fun to-do list for them.
  • Create ways to communicate what kind of work zone you’re in.
  • Relax your screen time rules. Trust me, they’ll be OK.
  • If safe, send them outside.
  • Designate a kid-free space.
  • Create fun zones throughout your house.
  • Invest in craft supplies.
  • Enjoy that big kid.
  • Get those kids outside.
  • Claim some space for yourself.
  • Create some space for them.

What to do with Middle Schoolers

  • Create a schedule they can follow.
  • Set daily goals for school work and reward them.
  • Relax your screen time rules. (Just kidding, by this age, that’s already happened. But they are going to need limits.)
  • Check in to see what they are up to.
  • Use breaks to go on bike rides, walks, or do something together outside.
  • Talk about what’s happening.
  • Use this as a time to help them become savvy news consumers.
  • Enjoy that tween.

What to do with Teenagers

  • Watch screentime to make sure it’s also being used for school work.
  • Set clear limits of on-screen/gaming time.
  • Ask for the daily schedule.
  • Flex on bedtime.
  • Make the most of those weekend-like mornings.
  • Enjoy that teenager.

Plan and prep meals and snacks in advance

Ann and I make it a must that no matter how busy we are, we always have dinner together as a family. There is no screen time of any kind during any meal in our house. That also goes for adults. No checking of emails or SMS during family meals. This is time to tune into each other, listen to each other, being listened to, share our feelings, successes, challenges, appreciation.

We also cook together from scratch. No frozen meals from the microwave. We pick a recipe, cut vegetables, season and bake the fish with fresh ingredients. Our nine-year-old son loves it and proudly serves his self-made cobb of corn soup.  

We often cook more than we eat so that we just need to heat it up for lunch the next day. Frozen meals and processed food are extremely rare for us. But sometimes, a cheese pizza will have to do. Give yourself some slack. Your child will not die from an occasional pizza or pasta dish unless they have a food-related allergy. 

Breakfast for us is a different thing. Since we do not set an alarm, we all wake up at different times and we go about breakfast ourselves. Ann alkalizes with a vinegar-lemon drink every morning, our son drinks his green juice and eats a sclice of bread with Nutella. I have a green juice, followed by a paleo nut bar and cappuccino. It's quite funny to see us at breakfast, and we have developed a routine that works for all of us.

We also check in with each other, hug, and tell each other how much we love them. We quickly discuss what we plan to achieve during the day, who will work on what, when, and where and what support we need from each other. And then, off we go.

Working from home can be such a bliss. Just make the decision to be a slow family, live life, enjoy each other, love each other, and matter to each other. The rest will fall into place naturally. Enjoy that child of yours!


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