How to work from home with kids - some tech sector tips from the frontline

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 26, 2020
At home all day with the kids, the cat, the dog and a host of other distractions - some tips on how to manage the temporary 'new normal' of working from home.

(via Pixabay )

Those of us who work from home regularly have espoused the benefits of it for years – no tiring commutes, an office space set up to our exact requirements, no overpriced sandwiches for lunch. But that has all changed now with the Coronavirus outbreak and the knock-on effect of school closures.

Suddenly, families are being forced to remain housebound together all day, every day for weeks on end, and many parents are struggling to carry on working while also home-schooling their children. To that end, I've put together this guide to working from home with kids, with practical advice from some tech industry contacts – many of whom are in this situation themselves - on technologies and strategies to cope with the lockdown and get a crash-course on teaching at the same time.

Separate school and work

For anyone who has spent the last few days sat around a table trying to prepare a sales report while simultaneously teaching a seven-year old bar charts and a ten-year old subjunctives, you’ll have quickly realised that level of multi-tasking doesn’t work. One of the crucial tips to take on board ASAP is to separate school work with work work. Stacey Epstein, Chief Marketing & Customer Experience Officer at ServiceMax, explains:

It’s really hard to stay focused on my work at the same time I’m trying to get my young kids to focus on studying or engaging in constructive academic activity. Instead of trying to do both at once, we try to do the schoolwork at different hours.

So if I take a lunch break or end at 4pm, I can get focused on providing instruction or helping with schoolwork.

I can also be more focused on schoolwork during the weekends when I’m not busy with calls and emails. Then when I need to stay focused on work, I can let them relax and play, which requires less of me.

For those who can, changing your usual work schedule is beneficial, perhaps having more time with children in the day, and spending more time working when they are sleeping. Sridhar Iyengar, MD of Europe at Zoho, adds:

Being open with your children and explaining the situation is important. This will help them understand this is different than a school holiday when you may take time to spend with them as you would at weekends. 

Ensure you have a routine and even a weekday timetable for both you and your children. This will help hugely with expectations and keep things more ordered like they would experience in school. This can include times when you are able to spend time with your children versus when you need to work.”

Setting the alarm a bit earlier and having an earlier start to the day than usual can pay dividends. Cathy Toft, Head of EMEA Innovation Communications at Oracle, advises:

Get up before the kids to plan your day. This depends on what time they wake of course but if you can, it’s much nicer to do some extra work here when you have an active mind than at the end of the day when you are often pretty exhausted with your dual role. Everyone is different and some can be semi-structured but this really helps the little ones and the big ones. My husband and I do a half day each. This means we can really focus on the kids when we are with them and have the space to focus on work when we are not. If you swap every hour, your brain just simply cannot cope.

Agree boundaries and expectations

Just as parents need to set boundaries with their children to get through this period, so employers need to be clear with their staff about what is expected of them while they are performing the dual role of employee and teacher. Clear communication with teams is fundamental in setting expectations and negotiating priorities, not just for parents but across the whole business. Sarah Manning, HR Director EMEA at Zendesk, says:

Leaders need to be leading by example. If you’re logging off for an hour to teach maths, show your team. If you are having to chase a toddler round the room while on a conference call, let them know it’s okay. One of our core values at Zendesk is to practice empathy - show them you are human, that you understand we’re all adjusting and that you’re doing all you can for them.

Technology foundation

It’s vital to have the right technology setup for home working, and to use technology to help your employer and colleagues know when you are available and unavailable. Iyengar explains:

This will help you to work efficiently, and communicate and collaborate well with your colleagues to help ensure you are as productive as possible in the times you are working.

School and nursery WhatsApp groups are currently a mine of useful learning resources, while work chat groups are a great space to stay connected with colleagues. Video conferencing tool Zoom has also seen a huge uptick in signups, as people turn to their webcams for work meetings and just some social interaction, whether girls nights in, virtual pub quizzes or birthday dinners.

Let the Web do the teaching

Fortunately, this lockdown is happening during the era of the internet, with most schools using their webpages to post work packs for their students; or you can always download some for free from Twinkl.

Many parents are now realising the value of Facebook and YouTube for online learning, rather than viewing it as just a place for kids to waste hours each day (and lets be honest, it’s not just the kids is it?). Since the start of the lockdown, some kindly souls are live-streaming educational lessons on social media sites throughout the school day, so your kids can get a dose of history from a secret WWII underground bunker, a biology lesson from a nature reserve, or take part in an online spelling bee. Iyengar notes:

In the UK, over 800,000 people tuned into fitness trainer Joe Wick's live children's PE lessons at 9am on Monday. Audible has stories for children of all ages, and these can be accessed from a range of devices, including voice assistants such as Alexa. Kindle also offers a huge range of books for older children.

Don’t be too hard on yourself…

Emotional well being is crucial for everyone right now; putting less pressure on ourselves and on our children might just be the thing that helps us all get through. Epstein says:

We all can just relax a little bit. Our kids won’t have stunted growth if they have a little more free time and play time, and a little less academic time.

Finding time to exercise, whether a walk, a run, an online yoga class, or even just pacing while chatting on the phone, is vital for mental wellbeing during this challenging time, and for those needing some calm, there are meditation apps like Headspace and Buddhify. And a little kindness goes a long way, as Toft explains:

So much easier said than done, but take a deep breath and try to be kind to the people around you. And very importantly be kind to yourself. There will be good days and bad days. We cannot do it all. Don’t give yourself a hard time if the kids are not doing enough schoolwork, watching too much TV, or not eating as well as they should. Try and take some time for yourself.

Most importantly, don’t spend time worrying about how you’re doing compared to others. Manning says:

As a mother of three, I’ve seen first hand some of the challenges of adjusting to working from home while also having my children home from school. One thing that I cannot emphasise enough, is that there is no single right or wrong way to cope with simultaneously working and parenting from home.

As the saying goes, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’. If you need to mute WhatsApp groups full of other parents for a while, go ahead. While it’s great that there’s so much advice out there on stay-at-home activities and lesson plans to follow, if it’s just adding to the noise, you’re going to burn out much faster. We’re doing more than ever before in our homes, and it’s enough just to keep your children happy and safe.

…or the kids

We should also be mindful of the impact of these unprecedented times on our children, and how their world is now so different to a normal school day. Playtimes, after-school activities and hanging out with friends have all been snatched away and replaced with being stuck indoors and taught by people who clearly didn’t become teachers for a reason (for the most part, anyway). Chris Pope, VP of Innovation at ServiceNow, advises:

There are many resources available to keep the kids academically busy, but don’t forget a major part of school life is social interaction. Allowing Facetime with friends, collaborating and chatting about a piece of work, and sharing tips and tricks about certain ways to study that are more effective than others.

My take

It’s Day 3 of home-schooling here in East London, with my husband and I both carrying on working full-time from home while also taking over the teaching of our 10- and seven-year olds. I’ve picked up lots of tips from the above to help get through this period, especially the advice around not comparing myself to others, and finding ways to separate school work from my own work – not something I’ve managed to quite get a handle on yet.

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