How to tackle this new balancing act

As of Thursday, March 26th, at least 124,000 U.S. schools have been closed or are scheduled to close in response to the new and growing coronavirus outbreak, according to Education Week. At the same time, many employers have instituted company wide work-from-home policies to slow the spread of the virus.

While both of these efforts aim to flatten the curve, they create another major concern for working parents of school age children across the country: How do employed parents work remotely — and productively, at that — while also parenting effectively? Below are several tips that I've implemented in my own household to help our family navigate this uncharted territory. 

Communication is key

If you're working from home and there is a school closure in your area, it's important to keep an open line of communication with your employer and your family. 

Be sure to communicate this development with your manager and HR department right away. Depending on your children's age and needs, it may be necessary to change your working hours to reflect your current availability. Have a frank conversation with your boss to understand their expectations while you work from home. Then, once you've both agreed on an arrangement, be sure to share your availability with your team, reschedule meetings if necessary, and block off time when you plan to be offline. 

It's equally important to have a conversation with your family members about your new remote work schedule so everyone is aware of when mom or dad can play, and when they are working from home and should not be disturbed (unless there's an emergency, of course). 

Create a new structure

Children of all ages thrive on structure in their lives, and in these uncertain times, it's never been more important to create structure for both you and your family. Based on your child care coverage and job demands, create a schedule for you and your children (meal times, quiet time or office hours, playtime, online schooling, and homework, etc.) While this will certainly be a work in progress, the more you can standardize your days, the easier it will be to keep your children safe and happy and allow you to be productive. 

If both you and your partner are working remotely, build the family schedule with each other's workloads in mind so that one of you can take a break and reconnect your kids while the other can spend some uninterrupted time cranking through the to-do list. 

Test unconventional hours

Are you an early riser or a night owl? Now's the time to take advantage of these natural preferences, especially if you don't have the luxury of child care coverage during normal business hours. This works really well if you're accustomed to commuting long distances to work. Try getting up at the same time in the morning and spending what would have been your commuting time in your home office while your children are still sleeping. If you're a night owl, you may handle the essential tasks that require collaboration with your colleagues during a chunk of your regular workday, but dedicate the evening to handling the bulk of your responsibilities when things are quieter.

Reevaluate your meetings

Thanks to technology, it's easier than ever to conduct business via smartphone or laptop. However, I can tell you firsthand how challenging it can be to participate in a video or phone conference when you have a toddler screaming in the background. Consider this new WFH situation an opportunity to determine which meetings truly need to take place and which could be handled via email or a short Slack exchange. 

For communication that must occur via phone or video conference, try to block off one time period a day — when you have some childcare coverage — where you can handle all of your calls or video conferences, one after another. If your meeting attendees work in a different time zone, take advantage of this fact by scheduling your calls early in the morning or later in the evening when your children are sleeping. Set nap times are also good opportunities for short calls.

Enlist your village

Of course, the whole point of working from home and closing schools during this pandemic is to limit your interaction with others and contain the virus. However, if you have to get certain work tasks done and you don't have anyone at home who can help watch the children, you may need to enlist the support of your nearest “villagers.” Is the teenage neighborhood babysitter available to come over for a couple of hours? Or is there another working parent who lives nearby and finds themselves in a similar situation? Propose watching one another's children while the other completes essential work tasks in the middle of the day.

Stock up on supplies and activity ideas

If your children are of school age, their teachers may send home school work or other project suggestions to help you keep them busy and learning. However, you'll want to have a few activities in your back pocket to keep your children occupied while you try to manage your work inbox.

If your kids are older, get a head start on your spring cleaning and create a list of household chores they can complete to earn more screen time or other rewards, depending on their age. This works threefold: it keeps your children engaged, it allows you to get your work done, and it helps rid the home of germs and clutter. 

For younger children, hit up Pinterest for indoor games and crafts inspiration and then stock up on supplies via Amazon or other online delivery services so you're prepared to keep everyone busy.

When in doubt, have snacks and movies at the ready when you need a little quiet time. I've found that the same devices and activities I use to occupy my preschooler on an airline flight also work well at home when I need to work remotely.

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