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Work, Interrupted: Redefining The Work-At-Home Life During Covid-19

Struggling to find the sweet spot while working from home — with the entire family around — during the coronavirus crisis? In these extraordinary times, the old work-at-home rules no longer apply.

working mum at home with kids

We can all agree that it is a privilege to be able to work from home during a global health crisis. But add children, a spouse, and stay-in restrictions to the mix, and “work” may seem like a hopelessly impossible dream.

Yet, at the risk of sounding trite, parents who’ve been given the opportunity to work from home during the Covid-19 outbreak should aim to thrive, not just survive. In order to do that, you may have to go against everything that the productivity experts have advised, and create your own rules for making it work.

#1 Expect disruptions.

“Assume you’ll get nothing or very little done,” quips a home-based editor and writer, who has three primary schoolers and has managed without domestic help since last year. “This way, when you do complete a task, you’ll be grateful instead of frustrated!”

This could well be the reality of working at home in the time of social distancing. You could gently signal to your children and spouse that you don’t want to be disturbed, by putting on a pair of headphones — or whatever serves as your equivalent of a “work in progress” sign.

Some seasoned work-at-home parents recommend slashing a typical to-do list by half (or more) if kids are around, while others keep it simple, by setting three goals to accomplish in a day. Be honest with your superiors or clients, and let them know ahead of time if you’re unable to deliver on a deadline.

The upside? Singapore schools will likely provide a timetable for school-going kids to follow on home-based learning days, which means they’ll be kept occupied in the mornings as you work. All you’ll need to do is ensure there are enough devices to go around, or be prepared to share.

#2 Make full use of your bedroom.

Yes, research has shown that working from the bedroom could negatively impact your productivity and your sleep, but those living in small spaces may have little choice. To maintain a semblance of boundaries, aim to work in a separate space from your spouse and children. If you’re setting up in your bedroom or on your bed, develop a routine or cue to help you focus, such as using a dedicated music playlist for work.

If you do have a workspace, use the bedroom to seek refuge when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Simply announce to the family that you’ll be taking a short break, alone.

#3 Set work hours, but be prepared to change them.

There’s no telling what unexpected emergency could crop up with everyone being around at the same time. Be prepared to shelve your work to support a spouse who needs uninterrupted time for an urgent task, or to tend to a child who needs homework help or some loving attention.

Many work-at-home parents divide work into two shifts; one early in the day and one after the kids sleep — early bedtimes are a lifesaver for work-at-home parents.

During the day, find a slot that works for you, perhaps when your child is occupied with schoolwork or an online enrichment class. Some parents find it useful to work in one- or two-hour blocks, followed by a break, while others prefer to barrel through a task until completion. What works best also depends on the nature of your work.

If you have a pressing deadline or conference call and can’t get caregiving support for your younger children, let them have some extra screen time, and don’t beat yourself up for it.

#4 Your work and personal worlds will cross.

If you can set clear guidelines with your team about when you’re working and when you’re not, i.e. lunch and knock-off times, good for you. If not, a mindset change can prevent resentment from building up — after all, this situation won’t last forever.

“I enjoy work, so working on weekends or attending to late-night emails doesn’t feel too intrusive,” says a mother of two, who provides editorial services to corporate clients. “On the occasion that it does, it has more to do with work relations rather than a need to distinguish between work and personal time. I would focus more on careful communication and positive feedback while working remotely, as people need to feel respected and appreciated.”

This is also an ideal time to let your children have a peek into your professional life. With an unprecedented number of parents currently grappling with the work-at-home existence, kids don’t always have to be hidden away to maintain credibility.

A finance manager and mother of three lets her older children, age 10 and 14, listen in on selected work calls.

“It depends on the call. Some calls are with teammates, so I make them out in the dining room,” she says. “If it’s a call with bosses and I’m presenting, then I tell the kids to be quiet or go into the bedroom before starting the call. My daughters know enough about my work contacts, so I just need to mind that they don’t go, ‘Is that the annoying dude again?’”

#5 Videoconferencing: like it or not, you can’t avoid it.

The videoconferencing app Zoom has emerged as the new darling of the coronavirus era, and for good reason — it’s said to provide a better user experience compared to its competitors, with better built-in functionalities such as the ability to share high-quality videos. (Some users might not know this: there’s even a “touch up my appearance” feature on Zoom to help you look your best during a meeting.)

Many educators, coaches, and event organisers have quickly pivoted to Zoom, in order to keep their services running. Even if you’re new to video conferencing, the likelihood is high that you, your spouse, or your children may soon have to get acquainted with it. (If not for work purposes, parent-teacher video conferences are also a possibility in the near future.)

It’s one thing to look presentable while video conferencing — and there are many guides online to help with this — but feeling truly comfortable with the medium is essential. If you’re a newbie, sign up for some Zoom webinars during your off-time to play around with the app, or gather some friends for a virtual coffee session.

Concerned about privacy? Keep up to date with security threats such as “Zoombombing,” and find out how you can better protect yourself. You can also do what the tech experts do and cover your laptop’s webcam with a sticker when not in use. (Some people do this for all their devices, including smartphones.) After closing an app, you can also disable its access to your device’s microphone.

#6 Prioritise family over work.

This could be one of the more challenging times your family has ever been through, or it could be a period of growth — where the family learns to work in tandem, support one another, and find fun ways to spend time together.

If in doubt, positivity always helps; this means not thinking the worst of your family members even as they seem to be scuppering your efforts to accomplish anything of value. Ultimately, work is important, but the people in your life? Infinitely more so.

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