Working from home with five young kids

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31 March 2020
Tom Scales

A light personal reflection in the midst of a global pandemic

I am sure you’ve been reading about Working from Home and how to make the experience work. Maybe you work from home occasionally. Maybe you even work from home full-time, like I do.

However, I’ll bet most of you don’t do it with five kids at home, ages 13, 9, 9, 8, 8. Five teachers. Five curriculums. Five kids that are tired of being home and we have weeks to go. I’ll answer the obvious question in our mind, for those that don’t know me, yes, there are two sets of twins. Even so, the experience is jarring and complicated with no kids, one kid, or more.

I am so fortunate that my superhero wife can be their teacher, while I focus on work. Mostly. I thought I’d share some of my experiences and approaches and how the new normal has changed them. Many of you are trying to supervise your kids while both of you work. That’s tough. It is! Realize it, recognize it, live it.

So here are a few darn near-random suggestions based on my life experience.

  • All of this is exhausting. It is and will be for the foreseeable future. Go to bed early. Every night. Sometimes as soon as the kids are in bed. It is not going to get better until it does. You need the discipline of sleep and, hopefully, at least a little exercise.

  • Have a dedicated spot for work. Maybe you live in a small apartment and can’t set up an office. That’s OK. Pick your spot and make it yours. Your laptop. Your telephone. Your cup of coffee. If you have kids, they need to understand that when you’re in that spot, you’re at work, and they really can only interrupt you for emergencies. It will take a bit, but soon they’ll understand the difference between your being home, but at work, and you're being home from work. That said, take breaks. See how they’re doing. See how you’re doing.

  • Meetings suck. They do. There is no real way around the fact that meetings over the phone, even with video, is difficult. We’d all like to claim they are not, and I admit I am really good at it after six years, but when you’re setting up a meeting, be aware of this. First, only invite people that have to be at the meeting. Avoid joining meetings, like we always have, that “might” affect you or would just be “interesting”. Stop it. I am hopeful this will carry over to when most of you go back to the office. Short, focused meetings with only the most critical people. Meetings over about 30 minutes will give those attending ample time to have drifted away from focusing. I never do, of course, but their temptation to check Facebook or Instagram, will be overpowering at the 30-minute mark. My biggest suggestion?

  • Stop doing video meetings. Maybe if you need to share content, but even then, did you really need to share content? We all know what we look like. We don’t need to see each other. It adds a level of complexity and coordination that just isn’t necessary. Plus I have to change out of shorts and a t-shirt and put on actual pants. Usually.

  • Make a to-do list. Every single day. This is effective no matter where you work, but really critical when you work from home. Make it a reasonable amount of work that you’re confident you can accomplish knowing that you’re going to be interrupted by other tasks a little. OK, a lot. I use a small pad of paper and when the day is over I see what is left and decide if it goes on the next day’s list. You’d be surprised how many tasks that seemed important this morning really weren’t and never make it to tomorrow’s list. You can use your phone, or tasks in Outlook, or anything that works for you and, trust me, I’ve tried them all and a pad and pen is fast and cheap and easy to use. I don’t find the technological overhead really improves my task management.

  • Resist the urge to keep working. Once you’ve worked a full day, your productivity declines and your family needs you. I admit this one is a failing of mine. I am an early riser and it is so simple to just sit down and get to work at 5 in the morning. What I don’t do well is stop my day at 5. The other 5. PM. 17:00. It is just too easy to read one more email or do one more task. Obviously there are times you need to put in the extra effort. Your family needs you, particularly in these times, so get up and get out and be with them. Even if that family is just you.

  • Get a second monitor, one way or another. We’re in this for the long haul. Squinting at a tiny laptop screen is not you at your most productive. It is just not. I have colleagues where that is their preferred approach, and more power to them, but that’s not me. Most people spend a lot of money on a dedicated monitor that is maybe 24 inches. Not me! I bought a 43” TCL 4K TV. $200 on sale at Christmas time. It is glorious. Big and bright and lots of room and big easy to read letters. HDMI is HDMI. It works great. And I have three monitors.

I could keep going, but I’ll keep this short and sweet. Let’s keep it going in the comments. Do you have a great suggestion? Add it to the comments.

Most important of anything I can say: Be safe.

Edit:

I had to come back and add a story that explains the snake. We need humor right now. This all started at the beginning of our kids' spring break. We had volunteered to foster the school snake for spring break. We still have the snake. We will likely have the snake until fall.

Our oldest child is 14. He is averse to his picture being taken.

School is in session:

School is in session

Each kid already had an older Dell machine setup for them with Windows 10. The kid in the white t-shirt is tech support.

Science class:

Science class

There is a story behind the snake. Our school district's learning center has a snake. We volunteered to foster the snake during spring break. The kids never went back. We now have a snake until school returns. Yay! Maybe. Clearly our 8-year-old daughter likes the snake.

PE Class:

PE Class

We have found anything that physically wears them out has benefits at bedtime. We encourage races in the pool.

Reading time:

Reading time

Who needs to read inside?

And finally, the day 1 class picture:


School picture

The dress code is a little laxer and apparently includes pajamas.