Working from home is the new normal for thousands of people in many sectors and industries. The laptop on the dining table is the new workstation on the desk; Zoom is the new conference room; and the kids are the new colleagues.
For some, this will be a delightful change, and indeed there are many who thrive on the flexibility and comfort of working from home, enjoying the company of their families as they continue about their labours. For others, however, adapting is hard. Striking a balance between childcare, education, and remaining productive for your employer can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
If there is one word that stands out as a solution from all sides, it is flexibility. By embracing flexibility during these challenging times, employers, employees, and their families will all benefit and striking that elusive balance will be that much easier. In this post, we look at some top tips for achieving the holy grail that is the work-life balance.
Setting Realistic Goals
Being realistic is right up there with being flexible. Particularly if you have young children, expecting a full working day that is as productive as a day in the office is likely to be unrealistic. It is, therefore, important to accept that your working day will be disrupted and that long periods of concentration may not be possible.
With this in mind, it is important to prioritise and to plan. Planning applies not only to your work, but to everyone’s. A normal working routine provides structure which can rapidly dissipate without the fixed timetables of school and work attendance. Creating a schedule for the family can be very helpful in recreating that structure.
- Ensure that everyone gets up at the same times they did before the lockdown began.
- Get showered and dressed for the day. It will put you in a more productive frame of mind than staying in your pyjamas.
- Have meals at normal times, together as a family, and free of screens if possible!
- Devise a timetable that incorporates everyone’s work – grownups and children alike.
- Plan work carefully. Prioritise and keep track of what you’re doing.
- Try to maintain boundaries between working and non-working hours.
Everyone is different. Some people thrive in circumstances that stymie others and vice versa. Maintaining self-discipline is important but try to avoid letting that slide into unhelpful comparisons and self-criticism. A colleague may have children too, but perhaps those children are older than yours or perhaps their family’s lifestyle has made them more self-sufficient. Chastising yourself for seemingly not performing as well as that colleague is rarely productive and remember – as the saying goes – the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!
Work with Your Children
This heading encompasses multiple meanings. Creating a positive environment with as little friction as possible will help everyone to get more done. Importantly, you will need to adapt to the age of your children.
For those with very young pre-schoolers, nap times and early bedtimes may help when planning work time. Instead of trying to work when the kids decide that it’s playtime, consider shifting your working hours to coincide with naps or after bedtime, if the nature of your business or your employer allows it.
When it comes to primary school-age children, find ways to accommodate their desire for attention and set aside time in your schedule to fully engage. Attempts at multitasking rarely succeed in reality. Your productive endeavours and your children will benefit as a result.
Teenagers crave a sense of agency. They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood in more ways than one. So, when it comes to creating a positive home working environment, work with your teens. Negotiate rather than dictate and, depending on the nature of your work and the schoolwork that they have been assigned, perhaps even look for ways to involve them in your own work. This can help you at a practical level and provides many benefits for your offspring too by giving them useful work experience as well as a sense of responsibility.
Whatever age your children are, remember flexibility. While you may be used to – and even enjoy – a relatively rigid routine and work regimen, your children quite likely don’t share your enthusiasm and while it remains important to do your job, ask yourself this question: “Do I work better when I’m in a good mood, or while fuming after a row with the kids?” We hope we know the answer!
Look After Your Health
This is another ingredient to successful home working that applies to your whole family. When you aren’t leaving the house as part of your normal routine, it can be easy to slide into not getting any exercise. Government guidelines on leaving the house during the pandemic allow for outdoor exercise once a day, alone or with people you live with. This includes activities such as walking, running, or cycling. There are also many exercises you can do indoors, with or without exercise equipment.
Maintaining (or even improving) your physical health is important; mental health is, if anything, even more important. This is particularly so under such stressful conditions. Poor mental health can rob you of focus and motivation, ultimately reducing both the quality and quantity of your work. This in turn increases stress and damages your mental wellbeing yet further. Poor mental health can also have a knock-on effect within a family, particularly with everyone stuck at home, unable to take a break. Vicious cycles can develop rapidly. It is, therefore, important to be mindful and to deal proactively and positively with worries, stress, and other mental health issues rather than burying them.
Taking some of the other steps outlined in this piece can help with mental health. By being organised, your mind is free to think more clearly and calmly about things – work and otherwise. By managing your expectations, you are more likely to feel satisfied with your work rather than frustrated and worried by it. By fostering a positive relationship with your children and balancing their wants and needs with your work, you will be cultivating a happier and healthier home.
It is important to stay in the know. Indeed, your job may require you to follow current events in detail. An overload of news and information about the pandemic, however, can be harmful. If you can, limit your consumption of news. Consider picking two or three times per day when you read the latest news or watch a bulletin on TV or online and keep it at that. Also, take great care with your sources; keep to those that you know are trustworthy and reliable. Overconsumption of news will not make you any better-informed, but it may lead to excessive worry, stress, and ultimately more serious health issues. Similar rules should be applied to social media. You may even wish to curate your content more carefully using lists or groups. Twitter, for example, allows you to mute words, phrases, and hashtags.
Communication also plays a key role in maintaining mental health, both within the home and without. Talk to your family and encourage them to talk to you. Human contact is severely limited for many at present, and those with family at home should make the most of it. If you are worried about the virus, about your job, or about anything else, talk to your family and encourage them to do the same. Communicating with your friends is similarly important. You may not be able to socialise in person, but with methods ranging from a simple text message, to a video chat, to a session of Fortnite, there are myriad options available to keep your social life alive and well, and if you need to vent a little about your family with whom you’ve been cooped up for weeks, a phone call with a friend will help relieve pressure tremendously!
Communication is Key
We have looked at the benefits of communicating with your friends and family, and the same applies to your workplace at all levels. Having a chat around the water cooler with colleagues is on hold, but the same workplace relationships can and should be maintained through the other means available, for example, by email or via a workplace online chat tool such as Microsoft Teams.
Communication is also essential in keeping work organised. Even if your own work is largely independent from that of your colleagues, it is important to keep in touch and maintain at least the same knowledge of each other’s work that you would have under normal circumstances. Particularly now, you may have colleagues who need a hand maintaining their own work-life balance, or you may need a hand from them in maintaining yours.
Many workplaces are keeping regular meetings going using online tools such as Teams and Zoom. For those whose work requires communication with customers, other organisations, or similar, the use of company-provided phone systems or internet-based equivalents can be particularly useful. In any case, steps should be taken, wherever possible, to avoid “uninvited guests”. The appearance of children in the background of TV news interviews often goes viral online, but in the day-to-day business context, it is likely to become tiresome and unwelcome rather quickly. Finding a quiet place to work, preferably in a room with a lockable door, is ideal. If this is not possible, noise-cancelling headphones or a headset with a noise-cancelling microphone can at the very least help to filter out some unwanted background racket.
Communication is also important on a practical level within your family. You know how important your work is, and your partner or spouse likely understands it too. Your children, on the other hand, may not. Take the time to explain the responsibilities and pressures of your job and why that means you can’t spend all your time with them, even though you’re at home.
Much of the above also requires regular communication between employers and employees. Some people are fortunate enough to be in a position to arrange their work and their working hours however they would like but, in many businesses, this is not the default option or even possible under normal circumstances. These are not, however, normal circumstances and it is important to remember that many other people within your business are quite likely dealing with the same balancing act as you. Management are likely to prefer that staff work flexibly and productively rather than struggle to work strict nine to five hours while being unable to stay focused at their desk for more than five minutes at a time before having to help with maths homework or clean up a home art lesson gone wrong.
How Employers can Help
Once again, flexibility is key. Flexibility within employment comes in many forms and need not relate only to working hours. Depending upon the nature of the business, flexible hours may not be desirable or even possible. What, then, are the options for employers and their home working staff?
If the nature of the business permits it, this is likely to be everyone’s favourite option. It maintains the availability of more staff, albeit at varying times, and is better in this regard than the various leave options considered below. Staff could, for example, split their workdays with their partner or spouse, with half a day spent on the children and the other half spent on the job. This could also be combined with working earlier or later in the day, resulting in a normal number of hours worked, with compressed hours, or with weekend working on days when one partner or spouse has more time to spend looking after the children.
For those who work part time, hours could perhaps be spread more thinly. The same number of hours are worked, but over a greater number of days, resulting in more time to spend looking after the kids. For those who do not normally work part time, it may be worth exploring the possibility of moving from full to part-time during the lockdown.
Taking Annual, Parental, or Compassionate Leave
Flexible working is desirable but may not be an ideal fit in all industries. Using annual leave may help to relieve some pressure or at least may buy some time to set up longer-term childcare arrangements. Similarly, leave entitlement could be used in combination with that of a partner or spouse, alternating time off in order to stretch it out somewhat. Given the length of time the lockdown restrictions may last, however, this is unlikely to be a long-term solution.
Parental leave is a second possibility, with every parent of a child (or adopted child) entitled to up to 18 weeks per child up to the age of 18. Unlike annual leave, however, parental leave is unpaid. Moreover, employees are subject to eligibility requirements and need to have been employed by their employer for more than a year.
Time off for dependants is a third option. This is also known as “compassionate leave”. If you have someone who “depends on you”, you are entitled to take compassionate leave for a reasonable period to deal with an emergency involving them. Compassionate leave is usually unpaid, although some employers opt to pay staff taking it. Again, however, taking compassionate leave – or any of the above kinds of leave – for the duration of the lockdown is unlikely to be a viable option for many. Wherever it can be accommodated, therefore, flexible working should be the preferred goal for those with children (or other dependants) to look after.
It All Comes Down to Flexibility
Working from home can be a pleasure or a toil; working at home with children, all the more so (in either direction). For employers and employees alike, in many cases it is a less than desirable combination and will inevitably impact productivity. At the start of this post, we said that flexibility was the watchword, and so it is. Employers will ultimately benefit from being flexible with their employees, enabling their employees to be flexible in turn.
Flexibility is only effective, however, when supported by some sort of structure. Planning and organisation are vital ingredients, as is the maintenance of good health, and effective communication.
Managing expectations is also something that all must do. Employers must manage their expectations of their employees and employees must manage their expectations of themselves. “Business as usual” is, for many, a concept that is unquestionably on hold for the time being, but by accepting and adapting to the unprecedented situation in which we all find ourselves, doing “the best you can” may just bring about better results than you might hope for.