6 Tips to Help You Survive Working From Home With Your Partner and Kids

When all of the talk about "social distancing" first began, I joked to my coworkers that I was doing that before it was cool. I work a full-time job from my bedroom. I've been lucky to have the flexibility to work from home for the past five years, and considering I have two kids and a nanny coexisting in my "office space" most hours of the day, I've already learned how to survive in a situation that is quickly becoming a mandate for many working parents around the nation.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, many people who are used to commuting to an office while their kids spend the day in daycare or at school are about to face uncharted territory . . . in their own homes.

As the coronavirus spreads, parents who are used to commuting to an office while their kids go to school are about to face uncharted territory.

I shudder to count the amount of workdays I've been in a similar situation (minus the global pandemic, of course). My preschooler's school district was on a 14-day teacher's union strike earlier this year, and of course there were the unexpected days when our nanny called out sick and my husband and I would have to tag-team childcare because one of us couldn't get out of an important meeting while the other simply had too much on their plate at work.

So, as businesses cease operations and schools shut down, I'd like to share the strategies I've used to get through the day without losing it on my partner or my kids. Well, at least not completely losing it.

Be Up Front With Your Boss
Getty | Oliver Rossi

Be Up Front With Your Boss

A few weeks before all this coronavirus news came to a head, my family ran into a childcare situation, and I had to let my manager know that there might be some days in which I'd have to drop off or pick up a kid unexpectedly until the dust settled. (Oh, what simpler times!) I work for a very progressive company that offers flex hours as it is, and even I was still anxious to have this conversation. But there was no getting around it. That's truer now more than ever. So, even if your kids' schools haven't closed yet, let your supervisor know what your ideal plan would be for when it does happen.

Get creative in your conversation. If you have a baby at home, perhaps set up "office hours" that work with their naptimes. If your kids are too high-maintenance in the mornings, consider a shifted schedule that has you signing on at noon. None of it is ideal, but maybe there's a way that will make getting the job done a bit less dire.

Work in Shifts With Your Partner
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Work in Shifts With Your Partner

One of the best ways I've found to tackle workdays in which my partner and I have been stuck working from home with our kids underfoot is to set up "shifts." We've tried this using man-on-man defense with our two kiddos, and that just meant no one was doing anything productive. We've tried it with both of us half-working — all of us in the same room with one hand on our laptop and the other turning pages of a board book — and that's just a straight path toward marital spats. The only way I've found this scenario to work is to look at our schedules and split the day into shifts. This might be with me working the morning and him working the afternoon. Or me working for two hours, then him working for three hours, then me working for an hour, then him working for 30 minutes . . . again, inelegant, but it's the best way I've found to guarantee focused work while I'm on the clock and undivided attention for my kids. Speaking of them . . .

Stick to Your Routine as Much as Possible
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Stick to Your Routine as Much as Possible

"Routine" is not going to be your friend during this time period. But with schools and daycares closing for, in some regions, weeks, it's a good idea to wrangle together some version of one. Particularly if you've got toddlers or preschoolers at home, adding some level of structure to these days will benefit everyone. For me, that means getting everyone out of bed at a normal time and doing their usual morning routine — breakfast, making beds, getting dressed. I could let them sleep in and stay in pajamas, but I've seen what little pent-up, nap-refusing monsters they become.

Then, I'll try to come up with a few activities they can do with less-than-optimal supervision, just to get us to lunch — maybe first it's puzzles and then it's blocks and then it's . . . I don't know, stringing beads onto pipe cleaners? They don't have to be gems, they just have to get you to the next thing. It's smart to do something that expends energy, too, like dancing or building a couch-cushion fort or playing fetch down the hall with the dog. After lunch, my kids thankfully still take naps, but for those who don't, it's back at it with the activities. Maybe set a personal benchmark that one activity each day is something you fully engage with. Let that be when the messy paints come out or when you play a round of Candy Land or read them a chapter of a Ramona book. And all the while, try to serve up the same amount of snacks at the same general times as a regular day.

If you can figure out how to give some structure to the day instead of just taking every minute as it comes, you'll be much less stressed. Every day may be different, so don't get too ahead of yourself. Just settle on a general plan of attack for the day before you have to start working that morning.

Let Screen Time Be Your Coparent
Getty | Guido Mieth

Let Screen Time Be Your Coparent

Listen here: I'm that annoying mom who refused to let her babies even look at a TV screen, never mind an iPad, until they passed the minimum age set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you already reap the benefits of screens in your family, skip ahead, but if you too are struggling with whether to go against whatever personal guidelines you've set up for your family with regard to overstimulating screens, please, give yourself some grace. We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances, and even if you are lucky enough to all be healthy at home, we're still all in survival mode. So, loosen up the reins if you can.

I know experts say that screen time shouldn't be used as a distraction, but that's precisely how I've used it when I've had to get through a workday with my kids. That doesn't mean I'm not strategic. I figure out when I'm going to need completely uninterrupted time, like if I have a conference call or need to give a presentation in a meeting, and I tell my kids, "At 11:30 a.m., you are going to get to watch two episodes of a show on Netflix!" I'll give them some options, or, if I'm feeling charitable, let them pick a children's program that I personally find abhorrent. Then, when the time comes, I turn it on, go do my thing for an hour, and come right back to turn it off.

It's worked best with my family that they don't watch more than an hour at a time. Hence being strategic! And although I've tried to avoid bribes ("If you play quietly for the next 30 minutes, I'll put on Moana!"), I'm only human. I've definitely bribed them. It's fine.

Try to Make This Time Special
Getty | 10'000 Hours

Try to Make This Time Special

No one planned for this particular "staycation," sure, but this forced family time — in which we likely can't even escape the walls of our apartment — is here whether we wanted it or not. If at all possible, I'm going to try to make the most of it. At the very least, I'm hoping that I can sit down and have lunch with my family most days — a meal I've always done in front of my computer screen. When my husband is working his shift, I'm going to try to do more than coexist with my kiddos. I've downloaded new recipes and stocked up on baking supplies, so maybe we'll try chocolate chip bars one Tuesday afternoon when I'd otherwise be tapping away on my keyboard.

And if that feels too lofty a goal, just set a more reasonable expectation. Speaking from experience, 15 minutes of uninterrupted attention lavished onto your children goes a long way. I find they whine less and listen more when I stop every hour or so and give them a few solid minutes of dress-up time or a quick game of tag than when I just try to multitask the whole way through.

Accept That You Won't Work (or Parent) Well
Getty | Westend61

Accept That You Won't Work (or Parent) Well

I can assure you, if you are working with kids at home, you are not working at 100 percent. In fact, you're barely working at half speed. Sure, in this situation you'll ideally be able to share the load with your partner, but there's no way you can expect to be as efficient or effective as you are under normal circumstances. You, ideally with the support of your manager, will just have to let that go. This is an overwhelming situation, and I'm willing to bet no one is getting it completely right. You just have to do your best. Some days your best will be finishing one deadline while yelling at your toddler three times. Other days, it'll be slamming your laptop closed and cuddling your crying baby. Whatever it is, the only way out is through.