While the desire for parents working from home may be to stick to routine working hours, some flexibility may be essential, says Ruchi Sinha.

A woman working from home. (Photo: Pixabay)

ADELAIDE: It’s hard enough juggling a job with parenthood when you’ve got young kids. But what do you do when social-distancing policies mean you’ve all been sent home?

This is the reality many families now face. Schools have been shut in Britain, France, Germany, South Korea and all but five US states. In Australia, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory are closing schools this week, with more states likely to follow.

To entertain and home school your children while working from home is going to take self-awareness, planning, communication and technology to stop the boundaries between the work and family from fraying and ripping. 

Here are six strategies to survive.

BE FLEXIBLE

Working parents often develop routines around work and family time. Even if you prefer to stick to your routine and keep work to regular work hours, you may need to re-evaluate. The new normal is likely to involve combining greater flexibility with plans and schedules for non-standard working and family time.

READ: Commentary: Three smarter ways to use screen time while kids are at home

To plan successfully, it is critical you know your own style and work preferences. Research shows some people are “integrators”, who cope well with multitasking and switching between work and personal tasks, while “segmenters” prefer to keep things separate and have strong boundaries.

HAVE A PLAN

Make a daily work and childcare schedule that you, your partner and (to a large extent) your kids agree on.

It is crucial to schedule things as it gives you a realistic understanding of what is possible and what you may have to give up versus what you need to claim as essential.

Working home bed

Don’t get too comfortable when working from home. (Photo: Unsplash/Designecologist)

My partner and I working from home with our six-year-old daughter have created a personal schedule.

It’s a manic schedule and we are trying to adapt it each day to make it work. But to have it in the first place made us realise how to share home duties and educational responsibilities while carving out work and personal time.

READ: Commentary: How to avoid a fight when you’re worried about COVID-19 but your other half isn’t

Have a family meeting and lay down what you think is critical for the health of your family and for your productivity at work. Use that understanding to identify workload-sharing plans.

Try different scheduling for a week and meet as a family to discuss what does not work and what could work. For example, try a two-hour work block for two days and see how your partner and kids react to it. Or swap activity times or roles twice a week or every other day.

Once you have a plan, it is critical to communicate the same with colleagues in a way that ensures they are supportive and can work with your constraints and capabilities. Be genuine about your struggles and ask others at work about how they manage their schedules. They will be able to empathise and appreciate you being upfront.

CREATE A WORK SPACE

Research shows working from home is less stressful when you have a dedicated work area. This helps you mentally and physically separate roles and boundaries.

With younger kids, you may want to have a symbolic boundary, such as a bookshelf or a room divider, so you can still see and hear them.
Invest in a good noise-cancelling headset and an ergonomically designed desk and table.

READ: Commentary: How prepared are parents for suspension of schools if that happens?

Make small traffic-light signs to indicate to young ones when they can and cannot interrupt. Use alarms to give you 10-minute reminders before you need to change gear from work to parenting.

When you are about to transition, write a note on what you want to do when you come back. This will help reduce the spill-over of those incomplete tasks into your next activity.

BUILD A COMMUNITY

Gather every human and virtual resource you can find to aid mental well-being and efficiency. You, your partner and your kids will need social stimulation beyond each other.

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Kids can connect virtually with their friends in peer-support learning. 

Organise virtual play dates through video chat. Reach out to the parents of your child’s classmates to help share the load. Another parent doing a video music class or a virtual art class might free up precious time for you to do something else.

LOOK AFTER YOURSELF

Don’t forget you also need some time to unwind.

READ: Commentary: How helping at home benefited my wife, our children and even me

This is the time to shed guilt and be generous to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes and missed targets. You are working in a brave new world and it will take time to adjust.

Be patient. Learn from each day by taking note of what worked and what didn’t. With time you will find a rhythm that works for you, your partner, your colleagues and the young ones at home.

Ruchi Sinha is Senior Lecturer of Organisational Behaviour & Management at the University of South Australia. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.

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