Many years ago, I was very lucky to find a role model in a highly respected and successful businesswoman – Yvonne – who seemed to have struck the perfect balance between work and family. She was also incredibly stylish, but that's another story. Her effective approach to working with others, ensuring they knew about her multiple roles was something that stayed with me for many years. When I found myself trying to balance military postings, having children, and a career as a pension's actuary, it was clear something had to change, and I started home working.
Nowadays this doesn't seem a big deal as loads of people work from home, and vastly more in recent weeks. However, at that time, connecting to the work network required a dial up once a day with all those whirring sounds as I imagined all my emails working their way through the invisible cables to some big server somewhere elsewhere to be disseminated to my colleagues/clients.
Clearly, technology has improved significantly since then – thank goodness. And I have carried on being mostly home based, including when a sole parent whilst my husband served abroad. Channelling Yvonne throughout, and with a lot of trial and error, I have achieved a setup that works for me. It may for work you too.
1. Be kind to yourself
There are days where you will fly and days where you will struggle with getting into it. This is no different to when you are in an office. However, you don't have that visibility of others working (or playing) hard – it is only your conscience to deal with. Accept that not every day will be productive and forget the guilt.
2. Manage expectations of others
Working from home usually means you need flexibility. Make sure others know what this means. I regularly do an evening or day on the weekend of email catch up – sending loads of emails out when others should be away from their desks. This means I can have time away during normal business hours. However, those receiving the emails need to know the time of the email is not correlated to the importance of the email. It is just when I got to it.
3. Be open and honest
For some people, admitting they had family commitments was thought to be a weakness. This is simply not true. Admit to others and yourself that you have other pressures on your time: the school run, a play date, your daughter's play that afternoon, the school assembly, taking your mother to the doctors, the grocery shopping, etc. etc. If the phone rings, answer it if appropriate and explain why you can't deal or let it go to voicemail. We are all used to leaving messages.
4. Go to work physically – it gets you there mentally
Whilst tempting to sit in our pyjamas and work, I find I am more productive if I go through the routine of getting dressed for work. Granted, this may be a sweatshirt and leggings, but it is not pyjamas. This is also important if you have a partner/children in your house as they see you going to work.
5. Set aside a workspace
This is tricky when space is at a premium. However, making a clear space for work reiterates the routine of going to work. Also, enables you to leave work and avoid the working 24/7 spiral. The end of the kitchen table can be used, but close your laptop when works stops. Make a rule about working IN bed being forbidden, but ON the bed is OK.
6. Take your children to work
Play to your child's inherent ability to make believe. Get them to get dressed and come to work with you. They have their own desk, a pile of pens and paper/Lego/pretend PC/phone and coffee cup, etc. etc. You can then ask them to do something to help you. It won't keep them busy long, but it will give you some time.
7. Plan around your children's attention span
My youngest used to sit at my feet playing with her Polly Pockets for at least 30 minutes to an hour. I would set her up with a drink and snacks and she was very happy and quiet. But when she was done, it was not negotiable. It helped with getting through short calls and emails. Also get to know the length of the movies your children like.
8. Use blackmail but keep your promises
Promising to watch a movie or kick a ball once a piece of work is done is not a bad thing. It focuses your mind on a deadline and gives you a decent break. However, keeping your promise will mean you are believed when you make a similar promise again.
9. Be firm with your teenagers
Our rule to this day is – when the door is shut, you do not enter unless someone is dying or bleeding. This is not risk-free; I have left my workspace to find carnage elsewhere, but that provided a good break! This does mean I often have to get my own tea and coffee and I have had notes slipped under the door with questions, (now I get text messages from other rooms in the house), but it gives me the time needed to get calls done.
10. Accept defeat
There have been instances during calls where the dog is barking, the children are screaming at each other, the doorbell rings, the television won't work or a multitude of other distractions. Accept that you are unlikely to give your project/meeting/call the necessary attention (unless you are my husband who can filter such distractions!) and go and deal. We have all been there! You will be surprised how much sympathy you get. Speaking from experience, shouting at the distraction achieves nothing.
11. Ignore the housework
You wouldn't mop/vacuum the floor whilst on a coffee break in an office so why do it when you are working from home. Be sensible with the distractions around you.
They will be there when your work is done. If you must do something, treat those breaks as watercooler moments – don't give them any more time that you would spend chatting around the watercooler. Otherwise, your different work streams – paid and house – will morph and you will never have a break from either. Of course, a perfect parent/partner would encourage others to do the housework. Enough said.
12. Speak to the outside world
This applies to anyone spending all day at home with or without small children. Ensure you speak to a grown up at some point. Working mostly by email and possibly dealing with small children can be a disaster for your work calls as you may need to purge (apologies to all those who have experienced this with me!). Better to chat to a friend before the work call!
Speaking from experience, sole parenting is hard at the best of times. Homeworking is a godsend, though, as it gives you the flexibility to cope with the day-to-day issues that arise. However, if you don't have to sole parent, then don't. Respect your partner's work commitments and their role in your children's lives and share the parenting with them. This gives you both tremendous flexibility for your work commitments.
14. Be a role model
Above all, don't forget that your children notice what you do, so lead by example. These are tough times but if your children see you work, then they are more likely to do their "work". You can all leave work together afterwards and do that exercise together.