Are the same benefits of flexible work available for parents who are working from home with kids?
Illustration: Rose Wong
We know people are working from home in massive numbers, and we know those numbers keep growing. A 2017 Gallup survey discovered that 43% of American employees worked remotely in some capacity, up from 39% a few years prior; OwlLab’s State of Remote Work report for this year suggests that number will hit 52% in 2019. Workplace flexibility can lead to better work-life balance, more productivity, and improvements to morale.
Over 40% of Americans work remotely in some capacity (and that number keeps growing). 41% of American households have at least one child. While the Venn diagram of those statistics doesn’t necessarily form a large intersection, it’s safe to say that many remote workers are working from home with kids.
But what does working from home with kids look like?
Are the same benefits of flexible work available for work-from-home parents?
Do people who work from home with kids need to use different strategies than your classic remote worker in order to find that sweet spot of being productive across both work and home responsibilities?
The short answers: the same but with more challenges, not always, and yes. The longer answers we’ve compiled, courtesy of 12 people who are working from home with kids in tow and have tried everything—from splitting their screen between work email and YouTube cartoons to making an egg timer their best friend—and are ready to tell you what works and what doesn’t.
What works when you’re working from home with kids
Dedicated home office space.
Studies have shown that work environments can impact one’s ability to concentrate on tasks, which is why it’s important for work from home employees to have dedicated space for doing so.
“The physical barrier [of my office door] is really useful. My kids know that if I’m in my office with the door shut, I’m not to be interrupted,” says leadership coach Alexis Haselberger. Most interviewees voiced similar opinions. Several cited the importance of having a dedicated work-from-home space, whatever it may look like.
Escaping that space when necessary.
When that dedicated space is not enough, it helps to retreat somewhere without distractions. Shayna Pond, an education consultant and mom of two, will get a hotel room—or, for shorter deadlines, head to the coffee shop—when she has a big project that’s stressing her out as to avoid being grumpy and snappy at home. “Physically separating myself from the work-at-home environment ensures that my children only see a model of appropriate work ethic when I’m present,” she says.
Rededicating commute time to keep up with other tasks.
Christine Carter, a marketing strategist and author of the children’s book Can Mommy Go to Work?, noted that the time she saves by not commuting allows her to keep up with household chores. “Working millennial moms typically work more hours than the average young employee, but they also spend about twice the time fathers do on both childcare and household maintenance,” she says. “Eliminating commuting time…[gives] moms nearly an extra hour of their day back.”
Setting up a schedule around childcare responsibilities.
Like other remote workers, parents who work from home likely have a bit more flexibility in their work schedule, but they have even more demands on their time, particularly if they don’t have full-time childcare. Using that flexibility to create a schedule that works for them is a good strategy.
Becky Beach, an eCommerce shop owner, uses the Pomodoro method to get work done in 25-minute time blocks while her three-year-old is otherwise occupied.
An on-and-off approach also works for Kimberly Back, a content manager. From 8 to 8:30 a.m. she has breakfast and “Mommy time” with her four-year-old; at 8:30 she spends a dedicated half-hour responding to email and Slack message, and so on throughout the day.
Greg Heilers, a ghostwriter, sits down to work before his child wakes up, during nap time, and after bedtime. He knows that he has a hard time focusing when his child is home and awake, and says, “Whether my child is crying, laughing, or quiet, I’ll want to know what’s going on. Whether it’s toy car races, shouting matches over wearing a favorite Halloween costume for the 15th day in a row or delighting in a shared cup of apple juice…[I] need to be flexible.”
Getting the kids on board.
Shayna has figured out something that works for her and her children: teaching them about delayed gratification. “If I’m working [alongside my children] and need to focus on my work…we plan a big craft or event for the weekend. Last week we held a ‘baking show’ and made unicorn cupcake surprises, the weekend before we built light-up stuffed animals using felt and circuitry kits.” She also attends every school event her children want her to go to, capitalizing on her ability to catch up on work after they go to bed.
…and what doesn’t
Not having an agreement with your partner about responsibilities.
In a relationship without kids where one person works from home, it might fall on that person to take care of tasks like letting in the cable person or keeping up with laundry. If that assumption expands to include childcare—a full-time job in and of itself—you’re looking at trouble. “It should not be assumed that the home-based parent should be responsible for both primary daytime childcare and maintaining a career,” says Kimberley.
When Scott Reyns and his wife were both working flexible jobs at different startups, they had a hard time balancing parenting responsibilities. “We’ve learned it never works if both of us are working for startups simultaneously. It’s just too consuming, risky, and unstable.” He now works from home as a voice actor and she works in operations in Silicon Valley; they’ve agreed that Scott will take on day-to-day parenting logistics, including getting his son off to school and greeting him when he gets home
If both parents work from home, you still need to be clear about divisions of labor. Blogger Suzi Whitfort and her husband both work from home and have three children under the age of five. He works in the morning and she watches the children, then they switch for the afternoon. They’ve made sure to get in sync on sharing chores, with her covering cleaning and laundry and him covering grocery shopping and cooking.
Not getting some help with childcare.
“There is a cone of shame surrounding parents who opt for out-of-home childcare, and it’s unfair,” says Kimberly. Mary Beth Ferrante, a mom of two and the CEO of WRK/360, writes in Forbes that “unlike the scores of pictures that show up online when you google images of parents working from home, working parents are rarely simultaneously caring for their children while working.”
Different childcare setups are available depending on your needs. Becky puts her son in daycare twice a week, offsetting the expense by negotiating a discount in exchange for maintaining the daycare’s website and social channels. Writer Elyssa Kirkham was less nervous about hiring a nanny, knowing she’d be around the house just in case. Scott uses his in-laws, housekeepers, and after-school tutors as needed, and Christine asks her aunt for help in picking up or dropping off her children.
Being flexible about where you work.
Related to the importance of the home office above, many parents who work from home have found that having kids around means that they can’t roam around and work from wherever they may feel like it. Renee Johnson, a designer, worked remotely for years with no kids before she got married and became a mother to her two stepchildren. “Before children, I’d freely work in different places throughout my home. I don’t focus well sitting in the same spot all day. [When I] do that now, I know I am leaving myself open to interruptions and distractions.” To address that issue, she invested in a pair of over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones. “Their very presence on my head sends a signal to the kids that I am off-limits,” she explains.
Overall, working from home with kids brings with it joys and unique challenges, and the important thing is to keep perspective of both. It may mean you get to enjoy lunch with your children or work from the road as you make the most of summer vacation, or it may mean that you sometimes need to lock yourself away from screaming children to meet a deadline. Emily Brereton, a marketer for an online distribution company, sums up a working parent’s philosophy: “Some days my work wins and the kids lose. Other days, the kids win and work loses. My goal is to average it out over the course of the day, week, or month.”