A few days after Christina Martin’s 7-year-old son was sent home as part of a school-wide COVID-19 precaution—but before shelter-in-place recommendations were made public—she was feeling pretty positive about her prospects of working from home. Local colleges had also instructed students to vacate campuses, freeing up potential babysitters.
“One of our college-aged babysitters said she could visit from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. so I could work,” said Martin, CEO of SourceUP, a financial management consultancy based in Indianapolis, who also has a 3-year-old daughter at home. “But a few days later, she texted to say she thought she may have been exposed to the virus while on spring break.”
That text came through at the same time the news started covering stories around needing to stay at home at all costs.
“It was my first dose of reality — that we weren’t going anywhere,” says Martin.
More than 2,200 miles west in Marin County, California, business growth strategist Megan Flatt was having the same realization. Mom to a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, she had received the directive that her children needed to come home from school, and that e-learning modules would soon be provided to families. The reality quickly sunk in.
“I remember turning to my husband and asking, ‘How am I going to add one more job title—the title of teacher—to everything else I’m doing?’ If you are already a parent and a small-business owner, or employee, right now you likely have three full-time jobs.”
If you are reading this and nodding, you aren’t alone. As of this writing, tens of millions of children across the U.S. are now home due to the COVID-19 crisis, living alongside their working parents. The good news: as a parent, you can still be productive with your work life. It just takes some creativity.
Here are few ways to stay on task whether you’re an entrepreneur, member of a larger team, or both.
1. Make a plan.
Every morning, Flatt sits down with her children to create a schedule for the day. She hands out sheets that detail time blocks in 30-minute increments, and together they map out the day’s happenings. If she has a call between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., for example, she will help her kids find something (like 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 neighborhood.
“My kids really like the schedule because it gives them some autonomy,” she says.
Martin does something similar with her 7-year-old son. At the beginning of the day, they will sit down in front of their sliding glass doors, take out dry erase markers and sketch out the day’s happenings on the glass. Ultimately, Martin finds that her only solid work time is daily between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. It is during that block that her kids know not to disturb her.
“I try to fit work into other times, but that two-hour block is my time,” she says. “I also know that right now I’m only doing what is absolutely essential for my clients. I think a lot of us are in that same situation.”
Ken Wentworth also swears by sticking to a schedule. As owner of Mr. Biz Solutions, a CFO consultancy in Columbus, Ohio, he breaks down his day into hour-long chunks and that includes spending time with his kids.
"Being disciplined enough to stick to your schedule is key," he said. "If your kids see you aren't adhering to it, they won't take it seriously either, which will likely result in frustrating interruptions."
2. Work alongside your kids in small chunks of time.
Don’t think block scheduling will work for your family? Try what Dr. Stephanie Birdwell, founder of Magnolia Wellness Center in the San Francisco Bay Area does at home with her 5-year-old daughter.
“We will 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 realizing that work can be integrated with my child; it doesn’t need to be compartmentalized,” 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.”
3. Communicate your needs.
Scott Crabtree has gotten creative with the way he communicates with his two young daughters during this unprecedented time. Founder of Happy Brain Science, a Portland, Oregon-based company that uses the latest 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 NO DISTURB—WORKING MONKEY!' sign.
"This means I'm on a Zoom call with a client, and it is very important I don't get interrupted at all," he says. "The 'Working Monkey' part is to make a little joke out of it so it's all a little lighter."
There's the 'Enter quietly if you need to' sign.
"This means I'm working, but you can come in, grab something and leave again," Crabtree says.
And then there are times when he leaves the door open, signaling he's fully available to his family.
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, the mother of a four-year-old son and both a full-time employee at a tech company in Silicon Valley and the owner of Simpatico, a boutique gift and home décor shop in Felton, California, recommends resetting expectations for yourself.
“As an entrepreneur, I would love to be spending 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.”
Right now I’m only doing what is absolutely essential for my clients. I think a lot of us are in that same situation.
—Christina Martin, CEO, SourceUP
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.”
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 creative massive spikes in my anxiety over the past few weeks, but right now it is about taking it one day at a time.”
Photo: Getty Images