I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff about how to best work from home (because apparently that’s not going to stop any time soon) floating around, either from people I know offline or being posted on social media. Given that most people were going into work every day, I’m guessing a lotheirt of employers were scrambling to define what they expected about working from home. Judging by some of the dictates I’ve seen come out, these employers they only really know how to operate off the “butts in seats” school of management. So, when faced with this brave new world of employees not being on-site anymore, they appear to have turned to how-to guides that were already out there online, which means they were pre-pandemic, when people working from home were generally there by themselves. Now that we’re all doing it, that’s a dumb assumption, but I haven’t seen anything that acknowledges the realities of trying to put in a productive workday with the whole family at home, so let’s revisit the whole “how to work from home” thing, shall we?
So, to frame everything I’m going to say – my family is a dual-income family with 2 small children (my oldest is now school-aged). My wife is a teacher, and we were both able to work from home starting last spring. Because we were both working from home, we pulled our kids from day care. The reason for the day care was that we were both going to work every day, so when the plan turned to “stay home if at all possible,” shipping the kids out so we could come back home and work made no sense.
What this means is that I’m not going to be acting as if people don’t have kids at home. That said, my kids both still had quiet/nap time up until school started recently, and yes, that helped. So far, even with the start of the school year, things have changed surprisingly little. If my situation sounds like yours, then I hope it helps. If not, then maybe you can use it as a good frame of reference for trying to cope with the unending “stay at home” orders going into the school year.
This is all stuff that works for me, your mileage will vary and you should feel free to ignore or change things that don’t apply well to your situation. I’m going to try to list my logic behind what I do in the hopes that even if the specific actions don’t work, you can adapt the philosophy behind it to make it work for you.
The (formerly) good advice isn’t as good anymore
The problem with all the advice that’s already out there is that it was written for people whose kids aren’t at home with them during the day. That stopped being true months ago, so it’s worth noting that there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, per se, just that some of the underlying assumptions aren’t true anymore. Given that it was the best we had when this lockdown started, it’s a good starting point for trying to figure out the new working from home.
What works for me
First things first, I always try to get dressed before I sit down to get started with the day. Similar to how making your bed every morning creates a nice psychological “boost” by starting the day with an accomplishment, getting dressed is a nice psychological trick to get ready to get things done. It’s entirely possible to spend your workday in your pajamas and be productive, and I know people who do that when they work from home. For me, not changing out of pajamas and into regular clothes is the default – the thing I do on weekends when all I want to do is lay around the house and be lazy. I personally associate staying in pajamas with doing whatever I happen to feel like whenever I happen to feel like it. Since when I’m working from home I still need to get things done, creating a mental shift from the “being lazy around the house” mindset helps. Getting dressed is the type of thing I do for a reason – I have an objective and it’s time to achieve that objective. For me, getting dressed signals the start of the work day and time to get things done. As a bonus, changing out of work clothes and back into pajamas is a good way to signal to your mind that the workday is done and get back into a relaxation mode.
My next couple of pieces of advice revolve around meetings. First off, turn the camera off and route the audio through your phone when possible (you’ll want bluetooth headphones of some sort for this). This is literally the opposite of what a lot of accepted wisdom on remote work best practices says, so let me explain my reasoning here. The idea behind having your camera on is so that people can see facial expressions and read (at least some) body language. That’s great – when you’re at home alone while working, and can sit in a nice, quiet place during meetings. I’m working from home, with 2 small children in the house. 1 of those children is too young to understand the idea that people have jobs, let alone that meetings are a thing. The other is old enough to parrot back that someone’s in a meeting, but has no concept of the fact that it means keeping quiet and not interrupting them.
Those kids have needs that have to be addressed in a timely manner, be they physical (diapers have a limited capacity, and if you don’t change them before they reach that capacity you’ll live to regret it), or psychological (I could spend the whole hour trying to convince a kindergartner to wait until I’m done with a meeting before telling me who they’re pretending to be “all day” now, or I could just look over and let them let it out, which takes about 3 seconds). Doing that with your webcam on is…distracting, to be diplomatic. With your webcam off, nobody can see you tell your kids to stop hitting their sibling, or feed a kid, or untangle whatever thing they’ve tangled lately, or tie something that came untied, put on shoes, take off shoes, see the latest thing they made, or…well, you get the idea. Once you’re working from home with kids, the camera causes more problems than it solves. As a bonus, if you’re the type of person who likes to pace when they’re on a call (like me), the camera off and audio on your phone method lets you avoid the restlessness of sitting in a meeting without being able to move around.
While we’re on the subject of meetings, if you can figure out a general flow to your day, and have any control over when your meetings are scheduled, schedule them for the times when your day reaches a point where your family is going to be restless anyways. It’s counter intuitive, but I promise it makes sense. I’m assuming you’re on the no camera, phone for audio setup I mentioned earlier. That’s the trick that enables this tip. The idea here is to double-dip on things that prevent you from sitting down and making software so that you can knock them all out at once. Software development productivity relies on periods of concentration and focus while working on a problem. You can’t get that during a meeting, and you can’t do that while you’re busy with a laundry list of little things to help take care your family. But if you’re doing all of that the same time, then you tend to get more (and longer bursts) where you can sit down and get things done. For me, those periods tend to be first thing in the morning while my kids are eating breakfast, and the middle of the day until mid-afternoonish when they’re down for naps (or, in theory, “quiet time”). If other people are at their neediest during standups, backlog groomings, demos, and sprint plannings – all times when I wasn’t going to be heads-down coding anyways, I can get up and do quick and simple tasks as needed. Then when I do need to sit down and code, everyone’s all set. Sadly, this doesn’t do any good for meetings you can’t control the timing of, or the impromptu “let’s jump on a quick call to discuss this” calls. However, if you can try to subtlety adjust your family’s routine so that you’re general day-to-day parenting happens during your regularly-scheduled meetings, or put off making the kids spend some time in their rooms so you can focus until an impromptu meeting is over, you’ll find that you have some quality stretches of the day where you can get things done. How do you adjust everyone’s schedules when you have a spouse who also needs to work from home too? Maybe lunch can be around 11:00 or 11:30 during a multi-team status meeting instead of noon. Maybe breakfast can be a little earlier or later in the morning. Maybe they can hang until you’re next meeting ends, and then be tucked in for naps, or at least sent to their room to play quietly. You get the idea. Try it, and you’ll be shocked at how well you can manage to get things done despite everything that goes on during your day.
Understanding how your days flow is important, but so is understanding the flow of your days within a given week. Here’s a working example, every week I have 1 day that I end up spending half of in meetings (it’s the same day every week, so I know it’s coming). My wife had a day that she spent half of in meetings as well (again, the same day every week but different from my “big meetings” days). Since we had both our kids home with us, someone being in a meeting meant the other parent was in charge of keeping the kids (mostly) away from whoever is in a meeting. Just because I keep my camera off and use my phone to give me the ability to deal with quick little things doesn’t mean that I’m trying to not pay attention and focus on meetings, just that I know with 2 small kids in the house that’s not 100% doable. That schedule setup meant that for several months there were 2 days a week where my productivity was going to be limited, either because I was in meetings for most of the day, or my wife was in meetings most of the day (meaning I was the primary parent for a good chunk of the day). The trick to this is planning what you intend to do on those days accordingly. My general preference for those days was always to prioritize more administrative work when possible (like peer reviews, researching something), and work that’s more time-consuming than it is difficult (like going back and adding unit tests to code I already wrote). Basically, on those days I plan to just do stuff that’s easy for me to pop in and out of throughout the day. If I was caught up on that type of work, I usually tried to make those the days that I worked on my simpler tickets for the sprint. The flip side is on days where I wasn’t going to have several meetings, I would try to put off quick and easy work to prioritize things that required more intense focus because I had 2 days that week where I wouldn’t get that opportunity.
I’m going to close my set of tips that have worked well for me by going back and adapting another common piece of working remote advice that worked a lot better when our families weren’t quarantined in our new “office” with us. That advice is that you should have a dedicated work area. Ideally, this would be a separate room with a door, but for people in apartments or who can’t afford that kind of extra real estate a fairly quiet, tucked-aside space would work. Basically, exactly where in your home you work should be somewhere theoretically absent of distractions where you can focus (bonus points for anyone who happens to work for a company that insists their employees follow it this advice while currently not working their open-office space without the slightest hint of irony). That’s nice for when you’re working at home by yourself, or if your kids get home from school just before the end of the workday. When you’re kids are no longer in day care or school, you don’t get to hole up in a home office all day (I tried, it didn’t work). Now, we’re all working in the most central, distraction-filled section of the house.
Sadly, there’s nothing that can be done to help that part – but another thing parents lost when we started working while watching kids was the ability to easily and clearly “leave” work for the day when we walk away from the home office. That probably explains why people working remotely now spend more time logged into the company network than when they were actually at the office. That I can help with. I keep a personal laptop with my work laptop in the kitchen (which is where my wife and I both work). During the work day, the work laptop sits on top of the personal one. At the end of the day, I put the personal laptop on top. I found that if I didn’t, if I hopped on to make an online dinner order, or just had a couple of minutes, I was too tempted to also follow up on something I was working on earlier in the day, or get side-tracked debugging the latest thing I had originally planned to follow up on tomorrow. By making the “available” laptop the personal one, I’m not nearly as tempted to work every waking moment without a pressing need. If that system doesn’t work for you, pack your work computer up at the end of the day, the same as you would if you were leaving the office. Even if your “commute” is 2 feet, just putting the work computer away helps give you a definitive “end” to your work day. It’s not necessarily going to make you more productive, but it’ll help you rest and avoid burnout, which is better for your productivity long-term.
A couple of other things worth noting
Obviously, just because you’re now working from home doesn’t relieve you from the responsibility to get your job done. Some companies (my current employer among them), understand that we’re all dealing with a lot of extra stuff than we were before the pandemic started, and they’ve been encouraging employees to do the best they can. The best thing about working remotely is that you can shift your hours (to a point). You still need to be online for meetings and at least able to answer messages whenever your company or team has established as being the main work day. In theory, this means you could focus on dealing with kids during part of the day, and do some work later in the day when you can better focus. The key here is to not try to spend every waking moment trying to cram work in. Figure out when you can work best, and when you need to help with your family. 1 working remotely practice that still applies even for those of us working from home while actively parenting is that the important thing is that the work is getting done and you’re responsive to teammates who need you, not the specific hours you’re logged in. Get the work done, but make sure you get offline too.
All advice subject to change
I developed my system for coping working from home with 2 kids who weren’t school-aged and with my wife working from home too. With both of us at home, it made no sense to keep kids in day care. My wife’s a school teacher, and oldest is just now starting school. While the kids are going online, teachers are having to teach virtual lessons from their classrooms (don’t ask me, it makes no sense to me either), our existing setup isn’t going to work. My wife is going into work, and keeping 2 kids at home (1 of whom has to do school) isn’t going to work. So my wife is going back to work and my youngest is back in day care. My oldest has the option of staying in my wife’s classroom or home, and we’re likely going to be doing both. They’d still be home on teacher workdays, too. On the 1 hand, days my oldest goes to school will start looking like traditional remote working days. On the other hand, any days my kid isn’t at school are likely to be even more hectic and distraction-filled than before. My oldest will need to be able to log into Zoom in time for whole-group instruction, and in time for any small-group work with the teacher. Then there’s the work sent home, which may require parental assistance. Obviously, the periods of the day when I’d be best able to focus on doing development are going to change, but that’s a pretty easy adjustment to make once I figure out the specifics of how the school schedule works out. The good news is that with my personal system for handling working from home with kids, I should be able to handle throwing a new school year in the mix.