How Do You Work When the Kids Are Home?

Working in the home when the children are on break can present a challenge. With introspection, planning, and focus, it can be done.

And other remote work mysteries.

A group of 6 children run around outside.
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

This weekend I planned out what my kids will be doing over the summer. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be honest. My husband is a PhD candidate, and for the last few years he has been the parent on deck in the summer.

My husband accepted a full time job in February, and while I am happy that his job working out, it does leave us with the problem of what to do with the children during the summer.

I thought some of you might be in a similar boat–trying to figure out what to do with the kids when you work from home–and so I’m going to share my thought process. Perhaps this will help you with your own process.

First, some caveats. My children are 8 and nearly 10, so I no longer have to think in terms of keeping toddlers from killing themselves every minute. Your mileage may vary. I also live 17 hours from my nearest relative. Leaning on family isn’t an option.

How much focus time do I really need?

We aren’t made of money, so I can’t just keep my kids in full day summer camp for two months. I need to quantify the minimum number of hours I need someone else to watch my children, and find the least expensive acceptable solution.

I am lucky enough to live in a place where kids can play with other neighbourhood kids outside during the day. There are many parents who use this as part of their childcare plan. My husband leaned very hard on this option when he conducted his research last summer.

Theoretically, this outside play option should work for me, too. The kids are old enough to entertain themselves for hours at a time with minimal supervision. My problem is that it takes me time to get into the fugue state I like to be in when I’m completing the strategic parts of my job.

Actually, that isn’t the problem. The problem is that my children seem to viscerally know how long it takes me to refocus, and they time their interruptions to happen just before I can achieve it. They don’t always spend an entire day interrupting me, but like Pavlov’s dogs, I have been conditioned to expect an interruption at any time, and that makes finding my focus all the harder. Plus it stresses me out.

I’ve found that I need four hours of child-free time if I want to turn in work that meets my high standards.

How much sleep do I need?

A small puppy sleeps in the crook of a person's elbow.
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I need 7 hours to be able to write, and 9 hours to feel rested. Like most parents, I’ve been forced to learn to function on less sleep for months at a time, but at this stage I refuse to build a plan that requires less than 7 hours of sleep. (I’ve given up on getting 9 consistent hours until after the kids move out.) And while I’m a morning person, I have never, in the history of ever, enjoyed starting work before 6am. My ability to filter clicks in around 9am.

It’s better for everyone if I start work no earlier than 6 or 6:30am. I do my best to only schedule meetings after 9am.

How much free time do I need?

There are folks out there who do a portion of their work after their children go to bed. I often wonder who these children are, that go to bed reliably at a certain time. Mine have an 8pm bedtime during the school year, and even then, by the time we dole out kisses, stories, water, and general ‘stop talking and go to sleep!’ scoldings, it’s at least 9 in the evening.

My preference is to use the hour and a half before I go to bed to knit, read, and talk to my husband. I can use that slot for work, but doing so leaves me feeling resentful.

How does this all come together?

In the end, I decided that my working hours during the summer will be 6-2:30. Since most of my colleagues work on Eastern time, this allows me to be available during their work day. If my children are in charge of amusing themselves until 9am, then half day camp (9-12) with an added hour of lunch supervision (12-1) will cover most of my needs. I’ll spend an hour after work finishes at 2:30 to work on my writing.

This schedule is very close to what I currently use during the school year. It’s demanding and requires that I schedule everything out in advance so I can finish in the allotted time. That’s why I’ve scheduled the kids for full day camp (9-4) every other week, so I can spend the extra three hours of child free time getting ahead of my writing schedule and enjoying extra running time. That little bit of give in my schedule helps me power through the weeks where the train has to keep moving.

People have asked me how I manage to work when the kids are home. The short answer is planning. I schedule things so I can complete the thinking parts of my work during my child-free hours. I pay attention to my personal constraints–both financial and mental energy-wise–and make a firm commitment to finish my work during the allotted time. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you don’t leave yourself the option to work on something ‘later.’ And lastly, I schedule my off time with activities that let my mind and body recharge.

I’m a veteran parent, so I know my weeks won’t always go according to plan. But if I create a plan that includes keeping my sanity during the summer, then I’m more likely to keep it on most days. For the other days, there’s always the chocolate for dinner option. I hope sharing this process is helpful for you. If you have any strategies that help you work during school breaks, feel free to share them.

How to Figure Out if an Employee Will Thrive in a Remote Job

While it’s tempting to flesh out an ‘ideal remote candidate’ profile, you will have better results if you focus on capabilities instead.

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In the summer of 2005, a teacher manager role opened up at Kaplan K-12. I’d been working for Kaplan as an after school teacher for a year at that point, trying to figure out if I wanted to teach once I graduated from my MFA program at Sara Lawrence College. I enjoyed the company, I liked my boss, and I didn’t seriously consider applying for the role.

There are certain moments–certain decisions–that change the course of your career. This was one of mine. I had to turn in some paperwork to my boss, and I decided to take it into the office instead of mailing it because it was a little bit late. I stopped to chat with some of the managers in the office, and one of them asked me if I was going to apply for the teacher manager role.

“Oh, it looks interesting, but I don’t have any management experience,” I explained.

The woman–we’ll call her Dana– looked at me over her glasses and asked “Didn’t you say you worked as a nanny before you came to us?” She then spent the next few minutes explaining to me how similar watching children was to managing adults. The experiences might have been different, Dana argued, but the necessary capabilities were exactly the same.

Why Capabilities Should Trump Experience in Remote Work

In a recent HBR.org article, Nilofer Merchant discussed ways managers can avoid screening out perfectly good candidates based on the wrong criteria. She shared an amusing anecdote about a hiring manager looking for a social media expert with 10 years of experience when the entire field was only a few years old. Too often hiring managers pass on capable people because they focus on whether someone has passed a very specific–and arbitrary– hurdle.

Hiring managers can fall into the same trap when looking for a great remote candidate. Not only must managers screen for people who can fulfill the basic job function, they must also find people who can produce good work as a member of a distributed team.

It’s easy to understand why we might focus on previous remote experience. We’re pressed for time. We need people to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Often there are too many candidates vying for the same position and we need to find way to shrink the pool of interviewees.

The problem with using previous experience as a proxy for ‘this person is a good remote hire’ is that remote work only went mainstream relatively recently. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of remote jobs has increased 140% since 2005.

The number of people who work remotely is growing, but the total pool of candidates with demonstrated remote experience is relatively small. A manager who insists on hiring someone with ’10 years experience’ in a specific role, with a specific set of skills, in a remote context, is in danger of either settling for a sub standard candidate or finding no candidate at all.

Once you’ve checked to see if a candidate has the basic skill set to perform a certain role, focus on whether someone has the capacity to thrive as a remote worker, rather than insisting on an arbitrary amount of remote work experience.

How to Figure Out if a Candidate Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

Discipline

Remote employees must take charge of the rhythm of their work days. This means having the discipline to both work during the workday and to turn off the work at the end of the day.

You can find evidence of discipline in a lot of different places. The candidate’s resume may show someone who has to balance competing projects or priorities with low supervision. If you can’t find specific examples of this in a work setting, you can look for people who have successfully balanced different aspects of their personal lives.

For example, someone who worked full time while going to school shows discipline. Or perhaps the candidate trains for races, or volunteers at a local charity while caring for older parents or young children. Those personal experiences are sometimes more telling, because there is no manager standing over them, making sure they get that personal work done.

Flexibility

Technological advances and an ever-changing business environment mean that companies need employees who can adjust to an increasing rate of change. This is true anywhere, but is even more true in a distributed company, where the work is not chained to a specific locale or production line. A distributed company’s ability to pivot will (mostly) be dictated by the speed at which it’s workers–both employees and management– can shift gears.

This can be a hard capability to figure out. Everyone thinks they roll with the punches. Look for someone who has a variety of work experiences. Back in the old days, when jobs were jobs for life, it made sense to find someone who picked one career and worked at gaining increasing levels of responsibility.

Today, candidates who have worked across a variety of roles and functions bring more value. They have more skills to draw on when your company needs to change. This person is more likely to think ‘I’ve done this before,’ and feel more confident as he or she works through the latest shift in your business.

You can also find flexibility by looking for people who have a variety of life experiences. This includes (but is not limited to) people who live in foreign countries, persons with neurological processing differences, and those who live with disabilities. Besides bringing in a diverse viewpoint, these folks have experience navigating in a world not necessarily set up for them, and likely possess a robust problem-solving skill set.

Proactive Communication skills

Of all the capabilities that a remote worker should possess, this one is probably the easiest to spot. How often did the candidate communicate with you as you set up the interview? What was the quality of that communication? While it makes sense to ask all interviewees to discuss moments when they had to work with people via email and instant message, your interview will provide real-time information that you can assess.

Motivation

Why does the person want to work remotely? The answer to this question almost doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the candidate–unless, of course, the answer is ‘because I think it’s easier to pretend I’m working when I’m at home.’ If the interviewee doesn’t treat the interview seriously, move on.

There are a lot of good answers to ‘why do you want to work remotely?’ Perhaps the candidate is a military spouse and needs a job that isn’t tied to a specific location. Or maybe the candidate loves fostering dogs in her home. Every job has its tough moments. Candidates who know why a home office works for them will weather the tough times and work hard to keep their remote jobs.

How Not to Figure Out If a Person Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

It can be tempting to take these qualities and create an image of what your ‘ideal candidate’ looks like. Or worse yet, match them against certain personality types. I would caution you against doing so.

Qualities like discipline, flexibility, and proactive communication skills can present differently in different people. If you spend too much time deciding what that candidate “must” look like, you run the risk of passing over great candidates in favor of hiring clones of yourself.

I was lucky all those years ago, chatting with that manager in the Kaplan office. She was able to see past my previous job titles to the skills that truly mattered. With her encouragement I applied for the teacher manager role, accepted the position, and have been in management of one kind or another ever since. Looking at the capabilities that really matter will have a similarly beneficial effect on your company’s performance, and on your employees, for years to come.

Book Review—Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams

Photo by @sharonmccutcheon on Unsplash

In this quarterly column, we take a look at resources to help you survive and thrive as a remote worker. I am not paid to recommend any tools or resources, and the opinions below are strictly my own.

In today’s post we’re going to take a deeper dive into ‘Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams’ by Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss.

At thirteen chapters and 100ish pages, you could conceivably finish this book in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t recommend doing so–if read right, this book works almost as a personal coach. To get the most out of Orti and Middlemass’ expertise, you’ll want to sit with the questions posed in each chapter.

Presenteeism

Chapter 4 is a case in point. The title is ‘Now that I’m remote, how can people see how a hard I’m working?’ This should be required reading for all managers with remote direct reports.

The chapter discusses how to discourage ‘presenteeism.’ Dictionary.com defines presenteeism as ‘working long hours at a job with no real need to do so.’ This is a learned behaviour that one usually practices as a way to demonstrate loyalty and value. The authors get right to the point by addressing mindset first of all: “It is important to be sure that accountability concerns aren’t simply a projection of your own insecurities…”

From there, the authors discuss how to spot presenteeism in your remote direct reports and the systems you set up to keep track of the work. The chapter finishes up with questions that help you reflect on the current state of presenteeism in your team, and how you might “reorient” things.

All in all, the authors tackle a tricky subject with empathy and a general assumption of goodwill.

Psychological Safety

Several chapters discuss the importance of psychological safety in different contexts. Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Psychological Safety in Online Meetings,’ and gives tips on how the meeting organizer can encourage meaningful contributions from all participants. It also discusses possible reasons why someone may not talk in a meeting, and how to handle less than articulate contributions in an empathetic way.

Chapter 8 discusses how to make people feel safe enough to share their successes within the team. We all want to be noticed for our successes, but also want to avoid looking arrogant.

Chapter 10, ‘Creating a Culture of Feedback,’ ends with several specific suggestions on how to create a culture that embraces feedback, and a simple way to signal to others when you really can’t handle hearing it.

In a collocated office, you can see when your colleague is having a bad day. In the remote office, we need cues. The suggestions in the chapter are better than the ‘not now, I can’t even’ that I am sometimes tempted to use as my Slack status.

Defining the Digital Space

Perhaps the most innovative chapter in ‘Thinking Remote’ is the first one. Entitled ‘Designing the Digital Workspace: What We Can Learn from the Physical Space,’ it asks managers to think about designing the digital workspace in a way that aligns with a team’s values.

I have never heard someone ask for the digital equivalent of putting all of the toilets on the same floor to force people to interact with colleagues in the hall. I still don’t know what the answer to this one is for my work. I can say that this chapter has made me look at my digital tools in a whole new way.

‘Thinking Remote’ is a thoughtful, thought provoking work that belongs on the shelves of any leader who manages office optional workers.