Working Remotely with a Partner or Family

Working at home with a family is a challenge even in the best of times. Most families can find some success working from home with enough effort and flexibility. The hope is that it will be a source of suggestions and insight to ‘flatten the learning curve’ of how to work remotely. This guide is an add-on to the Working Remotely How-to Guide, which should be read first.

Everyone has unique circumstances that need to be addressed resulting in no perfect solution. Be supportive and flexible with each other. While initially intended for those in academia (students, faculty, staff, and administrators), this guide can be useful for the millions of people across industries that have suddenly switched to remote work due to the current COVID-19 situation.

There is a wide range of potential for success

Flexibility, Resilience, and a Deep Breath

A parent’s primary concern during the day is and should be taking care of their family. Being a stay at home parent really is a full time job.

Try to remember when your family was just starting. Chances are you thought you were busy before you had your first child. After they were born you quickly found there simply wasn’t time or energy to do everything you could do before (unless you had a lot of help!). You had to find household chores that could be pushed back or projects that could be eliminated. Of course the current situation is different, but your response can be similar. Don’t expect to work the way you always have, you won’t. Instead look for what can be trimmed away or put on hold to make your process leaner.

If you are doing academic work, chances are you need to do deep work. It can be very difficult to do deep, thoughtful, work while taking care of a child; being interrupted between every other sentence you write, in the middle of deriving an equation, or starting a creative process. You might get the work done, but it may not be your best.

The tricks that work for each student to get some work done depend largely on the make up of their household. The age, temperament, and number of children, along with the availability and ability of a partner to help with their care, are the key factors to consider. A lot of planning and a little luck is needed so you can have the long single stretch of time that you need.

Try a range of strategies and note what works for your family and what doesn’t work. Revise your plan for the next day and try again. Be resilient, not discouraged.

Getting set up…

Start by reading the general how-to work remotely guide. This guide will focus on additional suggestions and tools for partners and families.

Workspace

If you have children, chances are you are used to making areas in your home function for multiple purposes. When defining a workspace just think of it as another function for an existing space.

Make a kid free space

Make a physical barrier to keep your children out. The barrier needed and the potential for success is highly correlated to their age. If you are fortunate to have a home office, spare bedroom you can convert, or similar space then you are ahead. If not, you have to make some decisions about what can work for you. Some options might be

  • If your only viable workspace is in the normal play area, consider moving the play area to another space. For example, if your only work surface is the coffee table in the living room try moving the kids play space to their bedroom for now.
  • Set up a temporary workspace in a multipurpose area like the kitchen. Your work will have to be interrupted regularly, but if it is time to cook dinner you probably won't be working anyway
  • Make a workspace and block it off with ‘stuff’ as a buffer zone. This might be your only option if you need to stay within eyesight of your children.
  • If your child simply will not let you work if you are in the home, look for a multipurpose space that can be repurposed, such as a laundry room or a garage.
  • If you have an infant, baby-wearing and a standing desk is a good option

Distractions

It can be difficult to focus when working remotely. People tend to do what is comfortable and routine. But, the normal routine at home is chores, relaxation, and for those reading this guide - children. Distractions and opportunities to procrastinate are everywhere you look. Maintaining focus is key to making progress on your work.

Obviously you want to reduce distractions as much as possible. That will not always work with children. Some studies indicate it takes around 25 minutes to refocus after a distraction. Here are a few tips you can use to help you pick up where you left off more quickly. Some will be applicable to your workflow and others won't.

Avoid distractions in the first place

Obviously it is best if distractions never happen in the first place. Make it easier for your family to know when you are busy and cannot be interrupted. Depending on the age of your child, you can try simple visual cues to let them know now is not the time to disturb you. Some examples include different colored binders set up like table tents to indicate if you are available or not, a goofy working hat that you wear when you shouldn’t be disturbed, or any other cue your child can understand. Don’t push it too far however. You are not going to get 8 hours of uninterrupted work and if they don't see an upside to obeying your visual cue (i.e. you give them attention on regular breaks) they will just ignore it.

Keep a log book

The point of a log for this purpose is to keep running notes of thoughts, ideas, or next steps. The log can be on paper or digital. It doesn't have to be pretty and should not become a research paper on its own. Use it more like a middle memory (between short and long term memory) to help get you back on track. As a bonus it lets you look back and see how much progress you have made even when it doesn't feel like you have made any progress.

Comment your work

This suggestion should already be second nature to those of us that write code. Commenting is a great practice for very short term recall as well. Put comments on your draft as soon as they come to mind. Let’s say you are writing a paper and your toddler runs over and insists on a snack, right now. What were you about to type? What paper are you even working on now? As soon as you think someone is about to take your focus away write a brief comment on what you were just about to do, or when you get back to work you might not remember at all. The draft of this guide had dozens of comments due to interruptions.

Partners

A partner that can take on the work of parenting for a period of time is the ultimate solution. See the scheduling section for more discussion (and give them extra appreciation).

Video conferencing

Instructors should record online classes. If they are not being recorded, ask for them to be in case you cannot attend in real time.

Mute is your friend. Children don't schedule melt-downs and don't always wait for snack time on your carefully planned schedule. Most are not prepared to work remotely full time and home life will continue in the background even if you are on a video call. If you are really concerned you can add a custom background to zoom. Don’t expect video conferences to go perfectly.

In stressful times every pet is an emotional support animal. You are just sharing them with others. If you or child/pet/partner ends up on the video call one day, don’t worry about it. In fact it can help reduce stress and cheer up everyone else that is on the call. Remember, if you have a partner or family you are less isolated than most people. You have the opposite problem; no quiet time.

Schedules

Make a schedule. Decide on start & stop times. Be flexible in scheduling. Sometimes the schedule will get thrown out - that is ok. Revise the schedule every day based on what has worked and what has not worked.

Do your best to connect to online classes in real-time. It is an opportunity to connect to other people, ask questions, and make sure you stay on top of your work. Sometimes your child might make that virtually impossible. That is OK and everyone will survive. Don't let it become the norm or you will quickly feel like it is impossible to be a stay at home parent and work remotely.

Take advantage of naps. They are prime working time without kids.

Avoid the temptation to do housework when you get kid-free time. Most household chores can be accomplished while supervising the kids. It is much more difficult to focus enough to get work accomplished with kids.

Make sure to keep time on the schedule for you and your partner away from work. Once you start working at home it can be difficult to feel like you ever stop working.

The solution is often to shift work time, sometimes drastically, to times that fit family needs even if it doesn’t match their courses or research. For example, I do most of my work after everyone is in bed. This is not when I do my best work, but it is when I get to do work.

Strategies

Strategies depend a lot on your home situation and age of children.

The ability to work from home depends a lot on the number and age of your children

Online learning

Many parents are suddenly taking on the role of teacher. If your child is of school age and can work independently there are many many resources available. Don’t expect to be a perfect parent, primary school teacher, and researcher all at the same time while also dealing with the stress of the current situation. With the exception of the youngest learners more screen time won’t hurt them right now; think quality not quantity. Elementary school age children and younger need to learn away from the screen. That doesn’t mean you can’t use screen time to distract and entertain them from time to time.

The hand-off

If possible, trade off with your partner to avoid child-care burnout. One partner works and the other watches the children, then hand-off to the other partner. To avoid constant switching of workstations most partners try 2-hour time blocks. More frequent changes may result in tantrums by young children everytime a partner leaves the room.

Asymmetrical scheduling

Partners adjust their schedule so one is up before the children for alone time work and the other gets up later and stays up late. This strategy is more drastic in that it doesn’t keep the entire family in sync, but it also allows for completely quiet free time for each partner to work and decompress. (This guide was written almost entirely after the rest of the family went to sleep.)

Part of the team

Most of you have seen a child in the classroom at some point. Maybe that child was even yours. This is the virtual version with much less logistics involved. If your child will tolerate it, and your work will accommodate it, let your child sit on your lap and attend or teach an online class with you.

The Wizard (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)

Sometimes your child just will not leave you alone. In that case you might have to pretend to actually go to work. Some people have set up a make-shift office in their garage or even their car to escape the living area. This option is highly dependent on having a partner that can watch the take care of everything while you are out, access to a space outside the home (difficult right now, that’s why you are home in the first place!), and a climate where you can sit in an unheated/cooled garage or car for an extended period.

Community

Let’s be blunt; kids are a lot of work. Connecting with other families to share tips and workspaces, decompress, or just to see other people is highly encouraged. You are not in this alone. There are many parent communities on every social platform: join a couple. Talk to your neighbors. Make new friends. If you start to feel trapped in the house with them your mental wellbeing can suffer.

Kids Wellbeing

Kids notice. Even the little ones. They will ask: Why are you home? Why is school out? Why can’t I go to the playground, see my friends, go for ice cream, visit grandma? This is where parents with infants and toddlers have it easier.

To help, here are some resources for talking to your kids about COVID-19

Activities and learning resources for kids

Since schools started to close the internet has exploded with resource lists from parents, educational websites that are now free, and educators that are trying to interact live with children for online learning.

Community lists

Some age groups can entertain and learn on their own with a little supervision. These lists contain many many resources collected by parents everywhere.

Virtual Field Trips and Videos

Educational Apps and Games

Home Teaching Resources

Some are free and others have free trials right now

Before starting to work on a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Adam gained almost a decade of remote working experience across several industries, three years of which included children. Since the initial version many others have generously contributed their thoughts and input to this guide.

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Adam Stein
PhD Candidate / Engineer / Consultant

My research includes energy systems, policy soultions, and deep uncertainty.