If you are a parent as well as an employee or small business owner, the chances are you’ve acquired a third ‘job title’ since the COVID-19 crisis began – that of teacher.
Just a few days before the UK lockdown came into place, all schools across the country closed to children except for those whose parents are key workers and those considered vulnerable. That means more than 10.3 million school pupils in the UK are now home due to the COVID-19 crisis, many living alongside their working parents who are grappling with a switch to working from home too.
It’s a rapid turn of events and one that has put intense pressure on family and working life. The good news is that as a parent, you can still be productive with your work life. It just takes some creativity.
1. Make a plan
Every morning, business growth strategist Megan Flatt sits down with her children aged 12 and nine to create a schedule for the day. She hands out sheets that detail 30-minute time blocks, and together they map out the day’s happenings.
If she has a call between 3pm and 4pm, for example, she will help her kids find something (such as silent reading) to do during that time. The day is structured with school work, lunch breaks, snack breaks, free time and outside time for family walks around the neighbourhood.
“My kids really like the schedule because it gives them some autonomy,” she says.
Joy Foster, founder of social media training business TechPixies, has also embraced the idea of a daily schedule for her two children aged eight and 10.
Every day, Foster and her family wake at 7am, read and have breakfast together before getting dressed. After that, they tap into a range of online learning that has become available during the lockdown and use the resources for daily maths and English provided by her kids’ school.
“What has helped is repeating the same schedule and taking lots of breaks, she says. “We were big followers of the Gina Ford Method when they were babies, so we learned early on that schedules make for peaceful households.”
2. Work alongside your kids in small chunks of time
If scheduling doesn’t sound like it would work for your family, you could try the approach Dr. Stephanie Birdwell, founder of Magnolia Wellness Center, takes with her five-year-old daughter.
“We wake up and create a list of intentions for the day,” she says. “Mine might be writing a blog post; my daughter’s intention may be doing three paintings. We will set a timer for 15 minutes and sit side-by-side and work on our projects. After that, we will get a snack and then do it again.”
This method is vastly different than Birdwell’s past modus operandi, which involved closing the door to her office while working. “I’m realising that work can be integrated with my child,” she says. “We will finish a 15-minute stint, and I’ll acknowledge what my daughter did. It has been working and I’m finding myself really focused on the tasks at hand.”
Frankie Tortora, a mum of two, freelance graphic designer and podcast host, is also using chunks of time to get her work done.
“My husband has blocked out dedicated time for me to work. It’s in his work diary so his colleagues know he isn’t at his desk for that hour or two. And then he makes up his hours at the end of the day.”
An unexpected upside to this approach is that Tortora is feeling more productive overall. “I’m getting better at working in those little nuggets of time. Historically I’ve struggled and always needed a longer stretch but at the moment I’m just getting on with the work and don’t even take my phone into my office.”
3. Communicate your needs
Scott Crabtree has introduced creative ways to communicate with his two young daughters during the crisis. Founder of Happy Brain Science, a company that uses neuroscience and psychology research to help teams feel happier at work, he has created a series of signs for his office door.
There's the ‘Do Not Disturb – Working Monkey!' sign. “This means I'm on a Zoom call with a client, and it’s important I don't get interrupted," he says. "The 'Working Monkey' part is to make the tone a little lighter."
He also uses an 'Enter quietly if you need to' sign. "This means I'm working, but you can come in to get something,” says Crabtree. And then there are times when he leaves the door open as a signal to his family that he’s fully available.
Claire Beveridge, an Oxford-based copyeditor and mum to an eight-year-old, is careful not to let deadlines back up on the projects coming up for completion.
“If you know you've got a deadline and time is getting tight, you're going to get mega stressed. Try to keep one day ahead of the game,” she says.
“If your kids are old enough, discuss with them your needs and let them put forward theirs,” she says. “Agree periods of time where you'll give them your undivided attention and others where they will leave you alone. Try and plan in advance what they'll be doing at these times – I sometimes resort to unlimited TV.”
4. Set realistic expectations for yourself
The crisis we are all living through is taxing not just on physical levels with work and child care, but it is also demanding emotionally and mentally. Chelsea Drew is mum to a four-year-old son, a full-time employee at a tech company and the owner of boutique gift shop Simpatico. She recommends resetting expectations for yourself.
“As an entrepreneur, I would love to spend eight hours per week creating beautiful Instagram stories for my shop, but right now I don’t have time to do that,” she says. “The best I can do is to throw up a picture so people can get familiar with my inventory.”
And as a member of a larger company, too, these days Drew starts every call by giving colleagues a heads-up that her son may come into the room.
“It isn’t an apology; we are all in this situation right now,” she says. “I tell them that I may get interrupted. I’ve reserved screen time for those moments, and right now I’m OK with that.”
James Barker, a dad of two young children in London, works full-time for an advertising agency. He says being realistic also comes down to managing your colleagues' expectations too. “Look at the work and the meetings you expect to fit into one day and then split that across two days instead,” he says.
If you're a parent of a very young child, setting realistic expectations is even more important. Try fitting work in during nap times or at night, but also make sure to take time for yourself.
5. Go easy on yourself
Parents, as well as those without children at home, are facing various levels of stress with this crisis, and as Drew explains, some days will be more productive than others.
“I’m having to be a little bit kinder to myself and accept that some days things won’t get done,” she says. “Doing that isn’t easy and it has created massive spikes in my anxiety over the past few weeks, but right now it is about taking it one day at a time.”
As the weeks unfurl, many working parents are going to figure out a new rhythm that suits them and their families. One newly-at-home dad likens it to the times when children go through new development changes and it takes a while to figure out how to deal with it. “In the case of working and parenting during the COVID-19 crisis, the whole world has shifted," he says.