Well, in theory. Working at home can be a fantastic experience, and it’s full of opportunities to be more productive and do your best work. However, when you add kids to the mix, things can get challenging fast. Kids, by nature, want and need your constant attention. They don’t care if you’re on a conference call; they want to show you their watercolor painting – right now.
So how do you balance your desire to be there for your kids with your desire to succeed in your career? Here’s are some strategies you can use to find a good balance between work and family and get more done during the day.
How to Work Productively From Home With Kids
Read the average “working at home with kids” article, and you’ll see the typical stock photo of a mother smiling happily, a 1-year-old on her lap, while she productively plinks away on her laptop in a sunny home office. The toddler magically lets her get all her work done while he sits coloring quietly or even taking a nap.
I will save you some grief here: Working at home with children is not like this at all.
My husband and I both work at home with our two boys, ages 4 and 3. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned so far, it’s that some days go smoothly, while others are full of minor disasters. But never have we had one day like all these stock photos illustrate, with a precious toddler sitting quietly in our laps while we happily accomplish all of our work.
So don’t be fooled by the glossy images. Working at home with kids is great. It’s also a lot of hard work, kind of like juggling 15 bananas or building the Panama Canal. Some days it will feel like you’re trying to do both – blindfolded.
Another important caveat: There is an endless number of strategies you can use to build a successful work-at-home routine that includes your kids. Some of these strategies will work great for you, while others won’t be a good fit. Every family is different, so pick what feels right for you and give it a try. Use what works and ditch what doesn’t.
Working at home with kids isn’t for everyone, but if you’re ready to give it a try, or you want to learn how to get more done without losing your sanity, let’s get started.
1. Communicate With Your Partner
If your spouse or partner is at home caring for the kids, it’s essential that you communicate what your day is like so you’re both on the same page with your expectations and needs.
For example, if you’re under a pressing deadline and need to focus, let them know so that they can get the kids out of the house for a while. 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.
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. Some work-at-home parents use an open-closed sign like those that typically hang on the doors of small businesses, such as this one from Amazon. When you get an unexpected call, simply flip the sign from “Open” to “Closed” so your partner and kids know not to interrupt. With some persistent teaching, even young children can learn how to tell the difference between the two signs.
Some work-at-home parents adapt this strategy in creative ways their kids can understand better. For example, one work-at-home dad puts on a red superhero cape when he’s on a call so his son knows not to interrupt, while one work-at-home mom puts on a princess tiara. These ideas might sound silly, but such props are powerful signals to kids, and you might have better success with a variation of them than with a door sign.
2. Hire Help
Many work-at-home parents hire help for at least part of the day, and having an extra pair of hands can be a lifesaver when you really need to focus. But hiring a babysitter or nanny is expensive; hourly rates range from $14 to $20 per hour for two kids, according to Sittercity.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to save on child care costs when you work at home. One strategy is to swap babysitting with a friend or neighbor who also has kids at home. For example, if you know you do your best work from 8am to 11am, see if your friend could watch your kids during this block of time. Then, take her kids from 1pm to 4pm so she can get some things done too.
You can also pool resources with other work-at-home parents in your neighborhood or community by hiring one nanny or sitter through Care.com or Sittercity to watch all of your kids. You’ll pay more per hour for more kids, but in the end, each family will pay less than if they booked their own sitter. Plus, your kids will benefit from having other children to play with for part of the day.
Remember, use your “help time” wisely. If you have help from 8am to 11am, then use this time to do things you absolutely cannot do when the children are around.
Hire Full-Time Help
Another option is to hire a full-time live-in nanny to watch your children while you’re working. This can be an expensive option, but if you can afford it, hiring full-time help can be worth the investment.
According to Care.com, wages for a full-time live-out nanny and a full-time live-in nanny are the same, averaging $19.14 per hour. If the nanny has at least two years’ education, then add another dollar per hour; if she has at least four to five years’ experience, add another $3 per hour. Annually, this adds up to about $33,722, according to Glassdoor.
You also have to factor in the “hidden” costs of having another person living in your home. You’ll spend more on utilities and food, as well as on any overtime pay if the nanny works more than 40 hours per week. You’ll also have to give her a private living space, whether it’s a spare bedroom or a finished basement, which you’ll be paying for in your monthly mortgage.
This option is costly. But your kids benefit from having a caregiver who’s always around and who feels like part of the family. Live-in nannies also often help out with chores around the house, which can help alleviate stress on your part.
3. Use Naptime to Your Advantage
If your kids are still taking naps, then you’ve got an hour – or two or three – of uninterrupted time to focus. Make sure you save this time to complete tasks that require your full attention. Schedule calls or work on a challenging project while your kids are asleep, and complete less challenging or low-priority tasks when they’re up and about.
If your kids are too old for naps, then make them have “quiet play time” every day at the same time. Some parents have a special box of toys and books that only come out during quiet play time. For this hour only, the kids get to play with these special toys, and the limited availability keeps them fresh and interesting.
Resist the temptation to put the house back in order during naptime or quiet play time. Treat this time like gold and use it to focus on your most important work. You can clean up the house when your workday is over.
Despite your best efforts, there will be days when things don’t go as planned. This is where flexibility is essential. You might have to finish up your work after the kids go to sleep, or early the next morning before they wake up.
4. Have a Dedicated Home Office
Some work-at-home parents love being in the thick of whatever their family’s up to during the day, and the noise isn’t a distraction for them. However, most parents want and need a separate home office in order to focus and manage interruptions.
If you’re the primary caregiver, then sequestering yourself in a home office all day isn’t an option. You’ll have to put your laptop out of reach, such as on a standing desk or kitchen counter, and work in spurts throughout the day.
Another option is to set up a workspace in your office for your children. Give them a desk that’s just their size, and stock it with things like pens, paper, hole punches, tape, envelopes, magazines, and stickers. Give your kids an old keyboard to punch away on, and then let them work in the room with you. Will you get a full 8 hours in with this strategy? Definitely not. But it might buy you more time than you expect, especially because it makes your kids feel important. And they always like being able to see you.
5. Create a Boredom Box
A boredom box can be a lifesaver on those days when you absolutely must finish a task and every other strategy to keep your kids occupied has failed. Put simply, a boredom box is a box of crafts or activities that help direct your kids to play a specific way or create a specific project.
There are many different ways to make a boredom box. For example, a craft boredom box might contain the following items:
- Construction paper
- Pom poms
- Pipe cleaners
- Popsicle sticks
- A stamp set
- Plastic jewels
- Googly eyes
- Foam circles
- Watercolor paints
- Plastic cups
- Bubble wrap
- Paper towel rolls
- Cupcake liners
- Masking tape or Washi tape
- Tissue paper
- A hole punch
- Paper plates
- Paper lunch bags
- Various clean boxes and containers from the recycling bin
Once you’ve assembled these items, come up with a list of potential projects and write each one down on an index card. You might instruct your child to build a robot out of the materials, for example, or create their favorite zoo animal.
You can make a boredom box out of anything. You can create a construction boredom box stocked with bulldozers, dump trucks, and polished stones, or you could make a paper doll boredom box. Use Google and Pinterest to find ideas that will appeal to your kids.
Prepare your boredom box now, and tuck it safely away for emergency days. It’s your ace in the hole, so use it wisely.
6. Practice With Your Kids
Your children somehow know when you’re on an important conference call, and they’ll likely choose that moment to burst into your office screaming about the latest drama they’re going through with their sibling. When this happens, your colleagues might assume that someone is being murdered in your house. Sure, you laugh now, but just wait; it will happen when you’re working at home – a lot.
Believe it or not, it is possible to teach your children not to do this. All it takes is some practice.
Children learn through repetition, which is why your kids want to do the same task or read the same book again and again. You can use the power of repetition to teach your children what to do and, more importantly, what not to do when you absolutely must be left alone. How? By playing pretend, of course.
First, figure out which tasks you do during your workday that demand no interruptions. For most parents, this will be phone calls or video meetings. Then, talk to your kids about what they need to do when they notice you’re doing this activity. For example, what should they do when they hear the phone ring or see you step into your office and close the door for a meeting? What’s the drill?
Give them specific instructions, which will vary depending on if you have a spouse or partner at home to help. Pretend to take a call or have a meeting, and see how your kids react. Go through this drill over and over again. Praise and reward them when they start to do it right, and give them gentle guidance when they don’t. The more you practice, the more they’ll catch on to what’s expected of them.
One invaluable skill I’ve managed to teach my 4-year-old is how not to interrupt. If I’m talking to someone or focusing intently on the computer, he’ll quietly hold my hand or rest his hand on my arm to let me know he needs my attention. Then, he waits. When I’m finished with my conversation or done concentrating, it’s his turn.
This good behavior didn’t happen overnight; it took a fair amount of patience and plenty of repetition to teach him to do this, but he does it pretty consistently now. I’m now trying to teach his younger brother to do the same, and I know he’ll get it eventually. Again, patience and repetition are key.
7. Show Your Commitment
If you’re telecommuting for a larger company, make sure your boss knows how much you appreciate the flexibility of working from home. There’s a lot you can do to show them that you’re productive and committed, even when you’re not in the office every day.
One way to show your commitment is to get up early and send emails. If your boss sees that you replied to her email at 6:30am, she’s probably not going to question your work ethic.
Many work-at-home parents, myself included, find that they’re more productive when they dress professionally. Sure, it might be fun to work in your pajamas, but you’ll likely feel better about yourself and get more done if you dress for success. Even at home, your appearance can affect your productivity and confidence level. Besides, if you get an unexpected video call from your boss, you want to look like you’re at work and didn’t just roll out of bed.
8. Invest Time in Your Kids
A little goes a long way when it comes to kids. If you can give your kids 20 or 30 minutes of quality attention in the morning, you’re more likely to get an hour or two of quality work time afterward.
So, cuddle up and read some stories right before you start working, or get on the floor and build a Lego structure. Give them your full attention, and you’ll likely find that they play happily by themselves afterward so you can get some work done.
I’ve also found that regular breaks throughout the day can help minimize interruptions. My husband watches our children on the days I work, but if I don’t stop and spend some time with them throughout the day, they’re much more likely to burst into the office for attention. Now, I pop out of the office for 10 or 15 minutes every couple of hours to see what they’re up to or read them a story. These little breaks help us all feel more connected and reduce interruptions.
9. Use What Works
Here’s something that all working parents should take to heart: If it works and your kids are safe, use it. If you have an important conference call coming up and your kids won’t settle down and be quiet, turn on Netflix and give them popsicles. If you have a deadline you’re not going to meet unless you have two hours to focus, then let them play games on your tablet.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and occasionally, you’ll have to let your kids gorge themselves on screen time so you can meet your obligations and make enough to pay the mortgage. Don’t feel guilty about this. Use what works when you need to.
My husband and I take turns watching our children; I take them one day while he works, and then he watches them the next day so I can do the same. This back-and-forth is the only way we’re able to get anything done, and it works well for us.
Still, even with two of us doing it, being a work-at-home parent isn’t easy. I have to resist the urge to leave my office when one of my kids has an accident and is screaming for Momma to tend to their boo-boo. (My husband can do this too, but at 3 and 4, they’re convinced only Momma can do it right.) Sometimes, I have to lock the office door and ignore their pleas to come in so that I can finish my work for the day.
We’re both continually trying different strategies and tweaking our routine to better fit our family and our changing needs day to day. It’s a balancing act. We use what works, and we ditch what doesn’t. Have some patience as you do the same with your family, and you’ll hit on the combination that works for you.
Do you work at home with kids? What tips and tricks do you use to get more done during the day?