How to Work From Home With Children

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If you work from home with your kids around, you know it can be a challenge when you need to focus on one or the other. These tips can help.

The hilarious video of political science professor Robert Kelly’s toddler daughter waddling her way into a BBC News conversation on international policy shows how talented children are at interrupting parents who try to work from home.

“They know when you’re on a work call,” said Bunmi Laditan, author of “Confessions of a Domestic Failure and Dear Mother.” “The mute button is amazing on a conference call, so they can’t hear that you’re actually in the bathroom with a 2-year-old over the potty who’s saying, ‘I’m pooping!’”

Working while parenting can be stressful, but it’s a reality for the 61.9 percent of married-couple families with children under 18 in which both parents work. More parents find themselves trying to be productive or logging into meetings from home as companies encourage remote work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23 percent of workers did some of their work at home on an average day of working in 2017.

But chatting with co-workers during the day can also be a welcome connection with the adult world when you are a new parent. “When you’re in your own home and you’re mostly dad, you can really lose perspective of that professional life,” said Patrick A. Coleman, work-at-home father and parenting editor at Fatherly.

Whether you have a caregiver on the other side of the door or you’re fitting calls in while a sick child stays home from school, here are tips and gear to improve your productivity — and sanity — while juggling work and family.

Create boundaries

Teresa Douglas, co-author of “Secrets of the Remote Workforce,” has worked from home since 2010, when her company switched to all-remote workers. She said that one mistake parents make is not setting the right boundaries for children, even if you have a caregiver with them during work hours. “Children will always think of you as a parent first,” she said. To help her children understand when she needs to be left alone, Ms. Douglas puts a “STOP, in a meeting” sign on her door. “That’s the rule in our house. If my door is closed, you can knock one time, and if I don’t respond it means I’m in a meeting,” she said.

The physical barrier can also help remind both parent and child of the difference between work time and play time. “If you start losing the boundaries of where your work life and your family life are, it can lead to a lot of stress, not only for you but also for the family,” Mr. Coleman said. He keeps his work separate behind a closed door in his home office, but if you have your work space in a shared room, a baby gate (we recommend these ones) can help keep curious hands away from important documents and equipment.

When children are not old enough to entertain themselves, or when you need more uninterrupted concentration time, there’s no shame in getting in-house child care. Many parents who work from home assume they need to be both parent and good employee, but that’s not true. “If you can afford to have some type of care, it’ll be less stressful,” Ms. Douglas said. To parents who can’t afford child care, Ms. Laditan suggested trading child care tasks with other work-at-home parents, as she did.

Ms. Douglas recommended defining work hours with your manager, and sticking to them. For people who work with teams across different time zones, meetings outside of the hours they’ve hired child care for can be a challenge. She recommended communicating to your manager that for those meetings, child care may not be available to wrangle distractions. “Most people react well once they’re not surprised,” she said.

Take advantage of sleep time

New parents often hear the advice to sleep when the baby sleeps, but for some parents this can be the only available time for productivity. One way to get a few extra hours of work in is by moving kids’ sleep schedule up. “I’m a big believer in early bedtimes. I used to put my 4- or 5-year-old down at 9 p.m., and a mom came in like an angel and said, ‘No, you’re missing that early bedtime window,’” Ms. Laditan said. She changed bedtime to 7 p.m. and used the extra hours to do chores and get more work done.

To improve your focus while your child sleeps, a video baby monitor (we recommend the Eufy SpaceView) in your office can allow you to see the difference between a kid who’s up and one who’s just making noises in their sleep.

Block out the noise

Trying to work when you have children making noise in the background can make an important work call even more stressful. “One person had a very funny story where her children decided to have a knockdown drag-out fight when she was interviewing a very important client — this despite the fact that the woman had a nanny,” Ms. Douglas said.

In our testing, the best wireless and USB headsets have excellent noise-cancelling microphones and easy-to-access mute buttons to block unwanted sounds. They won’t stop your children from making a ton of noise, but they will keep everyone else in that meeting from having to hear it.

Mr. Coleman uses a fan in his home office to mask the noise his older kids make for the hour of screen time they’re allowed after school and before his workday ends. If you, on the other hand, are the noisy housemate in a small living space, a white noise machine, like our favorite, the Lectrofan, is loud enough to help cover up the sound of video calls happening on your side of the bedroom door.

Free your hands

With a smaller child, multitasking may be possible during quieter moments. “Babywearing” can reduce crying among infants, and sometimes it’s just the trick to get your baby to calm down or nap long enough for you to complete a call or finish an errand. A comfortable carrier, such as the Beco Gemini, comes with crossable straps for long wear. A quiet standing desk (or a standing desk converter) allows you to stand instead of sitting in a chair while working, so you can rock and sway a fussy or napping baby while you get some work done.

For parents who are pumping breast milk, a supportive pumping bra can hold breast pump parts in place, keeping you hands-free to type or do other tasks.

Just don’t expect to accomplish larger tasks during this period. “Don’t assume that those pictures that you see on the internet of people working with a baby on their lap is at all realistic — that’s just not going to happen,” Ms. Douglas said.

By NY Times Wirecutter Staff
Image Sarah MacReading