Are In Person Retreats Necessary for Remote Workers?

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to see the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams.

Photo by Rebrand Cities

I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.

I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.

I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.

Is Your Company New to Remote?

In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.

If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.

Does Work Get Done Efficiently?

You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?

It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.

Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.

Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.

Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.

I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.

Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders

If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.

There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.

Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.

In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.

How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?

Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.

In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.

Does Everyone Need to Go?

I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.

It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.

Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.

I Moved Web Hosts and it Had Unintended Consequences

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels

Recently I moved my blog ‘Living La Vida Remota’ to a new web host. When I did that, it accidentally stopped sending my posts to those of you who subscribed to this function. If you would like to keep getting these posts in your email, you’ll have to subscribe again. You can find the form on the right side of the blog.

Sorry about that folks! Thursday we’ll go back to talking about remote work. I just finished an article on whether company retreats are really necessary for remote workers, and some things to think about before deciding whether or not to host one.

Public Speaking Fed My Creativity

Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but the instant feedback that comes from a live audience can jump start all sorts of things.

North Carolina on my mind

Hands hold a tray. Three sprouts in three small pots sit on the tray.
Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

I came back Sunday from my latest (and last) work-ish trip for the summer. I say ‘work-ish’ because while I was definitely at the MBA@UNC alumni weekend in a professional capacity to speak about remote work, I also got to enjoy the event as an alum of the program.

My first talk was ‘How to Survive and Thrive as a Remote Manager,’ and I already know that I need to turn this into a blog post, or a YouTube video or something. Maybe several somethings. I had people come up to me throughout the weekend to ask follow up questions and share their experiences managing remote employees. My talk—both my talks—tapped into a need.

Public Speaking is Scary and Awesome

Have I mentioned that I enjoy public speaking? I get nervous, but back when I sang in my college choir I learned how to harness the nerves and use it to energize my performance. I had one moment right at the beginning of the first talk where I had to stop and take a deep breath, but just like singing, after that the rhythm of the words I put together stepped in and carried me through to the end.

With writing, you assemble your argument, polish your prose, and then send it out into the air. Hopefully it lands well. Talking (or singing) in front of an audience forces me to know my material well enough to change it on the fly if I’m losing them.

Public Speaking is Performance

I deliberately use the term ‘performance’ to describe these talks. Anytime you’re delivering something in front of a group, it’s a performance. And if you think of it that way, you’re more likely to be an engaging speaker.

Each live performance is a conversation between me and whoever is in that room. I scripted out my talk, then changed it as I spoke it out loud. I revised it again when I found the slides I wanted to pair with my performance. It morphed a third time when I converted my script into an outline. The actual talk bore a strong resemblance to my final outline, but it wasn’t exact. I kept a few different jokes in my back pocket, and left room to incorporate the audience into my delivery.

Departures as Compost

Writing is my go-to solution for presenting information, but I love the instant feedback that comes from a live audience. And it’s been a long time since I’ve performed something in front of a collocated group. I’ve forgotten how it can jump start all sorts of things.

In his book ‘Creative Quest,’ Questlove describes these sorts of artistic departures as powerful fertilizers. This rings true. I feel like this weekend fed that part of me that makes things. I don’t know quite what will come out of it, but I have the seeds of several ideas, and I can feel them trying to sprout.

On the Road Again

On my last flight I started catching up on all the super hero movies leading up to End Game. At this rate I’ll be able to watch End Game by 2053.

I’m flying out early Thursday morning to speak at the University of North Carolina about remote work. The two talks use some material from my book, mixed with my personal experience as a remote manager and employee. I’m honored to speak about how to survive and thrive as a remote manager and employee. I’m also looking forward to networking with colleagues I met during my MBA program. I’ll be jet lagged but it’s going to be totally worth it. Chapel Hill is a lovely place.

Not Everyone Wants to be a Digital Nomad

Even though I can work from anywhere with wifi, I usually work inside my home. I like my home office. As someone said on Twitter the other day, when people say they want to travel and work, they usually mean a few trips a year. I am definitely in that category. The last time I had to travel for work was 2014. Flying out of country twice in the space of two weeks is a refreshing change of pace–but I’m glad it isn’t my lifestyle.

The Kids Don’t Like my Work Trips

My son informed me that I ‘have too many trips,’ and the comment made me feel both guilty and grateful. Guilty because I am really looking forward to mixing and mingling without having to worry about cooking dinner or getting people off to school. Grateful because my son has no idea how much more of me he sees because I work from home. I like that my children can take my presence for granted.

Sometimes I take a break from work so my kids can stage a ‘spy kids’ photo shoot. My son says he looks ‘like that guy from Mission Impossible.’

I also like that while I can work while traveling, I don’t have to. I could complete my analyst duties while waiting in the airport, or late at night after the UNC event, but I won’t. It’s unplug time. In between my talks and the seminars I’ll attend, I plan to catch up on my New York Times subscription, knit, and perhaps write the start of the next book that is churning in my back brain. All these things are possible because I work for a company with a great vacation policy.

Or maybe I won’t do any of that. Maybe I’ll be too busy connecting in person with the people and the place I haven’t seen since 2014. I’m going to keep the next few days wide open for serendipity. I’m sure there will be plenty to tell you when I get back.

New York, in Pictures

It was a whirl wind trip. After spending three days networking with colleagues I took a day and a half to see the sites.

Einstein gets it.
A classic show, revised to even the power dynamic between the main characters.
A glass of Tej, from the Ethiopian restaurant Injera.
New York, as seen through Central Park
This is as close as I like to get to Times Square. Turns out I still hate it.

See you next week!

New York Bound

When you read this, I will be in New York for work. I used to live in the city many years ago and I’m looking forward to walking Manhattan once again.

I am originally from California and I moved to New York to get my MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence. I’ll never forget the moment when I came up out of the subway in Midtown, buildings all around and people rushing past me, and something inside just said ‘yep. This is my place.’ I love living in Vancouver, I love running in the forest, but I’m a city girl at heart.

And with that I will leave you with the words of Huey Lewis and the News:

New York, New York is everything they say 
And no place that I’d rather be 
Where else can you do a half a million things 
And all at a quarter to 3?

Until next week, adios!

Remote Work and Motherhood, the Canadian Springtime Edition

What’s it like parenting in the same place where I work? There is no easy answer.

Photo by Michal Mrozek on Unsplash

It’s almost time to break out the eye masks. The clock on the dresser says 5:30, and bright, buttery light is already streaming through my window. Pretty soon I will have to start using my eye mask if I want to sleep in past 5am, but not yet. It’s early May in Canada and the light feels like a gift after months of short dark days. Not yet. I’ll put up with being tired a little longer.

Everybody is up earlier. I start work at 6:30 so I can get some work under my belt before the children wake up, but the light drives them out of bed at 6:40. My early morning financial analysis now happens while I field requests for cuddles, breakfast, and chat. This is my quiet time to work while you are asleep, I say, and the kids are old enough to understand that means ‘leave mom alone.’

‘Alone’ is a relative term that usually means ‘go lay in mom’s bed and read while waiting for a cuddle.’ By the time 7:10 rolls around, my husband is downstairs making the kids’ lunches, and the entire house smells like his breakfast sausage. Soon he will leave for work.

Outside the sky is as bright as afternoon. I can hear the complaining cries of the eagle chicks in the Douglas Fir tree across the street, and I look up in time to see the Bald Eagle parent leave again to look for food. It’s 7:30 and I need to go make something for my own chicks. I swoop in to give them their daily cuddle, my mind already on my morning latte.

I don’t really believe in aiming for a work-life blend. That sounds like what happens when someone turns on a blender before putting on the lid. I like to keep guard rails around my family and work time, enforcing a separation between the two so I’m not pulled to pieces trying to cover too much.

If I had to pick a metaphor, I’m aiming for something like Butchart Gardens-a full lush life with little green breathing spaces between the various things. In the morning, though, it feels like I hop over fences at high speed, switching between co-parent and employee in a way that is both intense and routine.

I wonder if work/life blend believes in me, even if I don’t believe in it, I think, back at my desk after dropping off the kids at school. My latte is still warm and tastes like ginger and cloves. Or maybe the different parts of my life are like the oregano in my community garden–if given sun and good soil, they will try to spread out and colonize all available space. Some days I resent how often I have to trim the oregano back to keep it from overrunning everything else in my garden. Most days I’m grateful for it’s abundance.

And that, perhaps, summarizes the way I feel about working in the same space as I parent. Both my children and my work want my attention. Neither really likes to share. The only boundaries they recognize are the ones I enforce. And yet, like the light on a Canadian Spring day, this particular time with the children is fleeting. I can put up with being tired a little longer. I sit here in front of my spreadsheet, latte in hand and the memory of childish kisses warm on my cheeks, I am grateful for the abundance.

How to Get Ready for an In-Person Work Conference When You Work Remotely

When you work from home, getting ready for an in-person event can seem like a hassle. Keep these 3 things in mind as you get ready.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

I’m headed to New York in a few short weeks to attend a work event. Throughout the years, I’ve discovered that there are some remote-specific things to keep in mind if you rarely attend in-person events.

Go Into the Meeting With a Good Attitude

There are two primary schools of thought out there about in-person meetings. The first says that in-person meetings are mandatory if you want your remote employees to work well together. The second school of thought is that in-person meetings are unnecessary. Everything you could do in an in-person meeting you can do online. Like most things, these points of view are probably true for some people. Neither is 100% true for me.

Most days I love working from home. There is something so delightfully self-indulgent about getting to work in the quiet of my office of one. As I write this, I can hear the rushing of the wind outside, the hum of the occasional car as it goes by, and the clicking of the keyboard as I type. I need this silence regularly if I want my brain to produce stories.

I also really like seeing people in person. I can (and do) make time to connect with my colleagues throughout my work week. I have several coworkers that I consider friends even though we work in different time zones. And yet it’s often easier and quicker for me to forge those initial human connections in person.

I will suggest (with no data to back this one up) that most successful remote workers do best when they have the occasional out-of-computer work interaction. You may not feel the need to see people in person, but your coworkers may need to see you in person in order to get along with you. If you have a chance to meet your colleagues for a coffee or a workshop in person, see it for the opportunity it is. Personally, I’ve made a mental list of people I want to talk to during the conference, and I’m excited to chat with them.

Check Your Work Clothes

Very shortly after getting excited about my trip, I realized that I have no idea what people wear to work these days. The dress code at Douglas HQ is a button down shirt with a pair of old jeans and knitted socks. And while my knitted sock game is truly righteous, I suspect that I’m going to need foot ware that covers up the awesome.

I asked the internet ‘what is business casual,’ and Wikipedia said “Business casual is an ambiguously defined dress code…it entails neat yet casual attire and is generally more casual than informal (sic) attire but more formal than casual or smart casual attire,” which didn’t really help.

Other sites confirmed that a button down shirt and slacks are still fine, but how much can you trust sites that say silly things like ‘you must wear a belt’ or ‘no knitted tops?’ Does anyone else find it funny that we can get a robot to Mars but we can’t define a work style that has been around for a generation?

As far as I can see, business casual means whatever your company says it is. If you’re going to an in-person work event, you might want to check your employee handbook to see if it has any guidelines. You may also want to take a moment and think about how conservative your company culture is. And finally, take an honest look at how worn out your work clothes are. I already knew I needed to buy slacks. A search through my work tops revealed that I needed some help there, too.

Put a Face to the Name

There is nothing more awkward than showing up at a work event where people excitedly greet you…and you have no idea who they are. Ask me how I know. When you work remotely, most conversations take place via email and instant messenger. While some of these platforms give you an option to upload a picture, not all of them do. Add jet lag into the mix, and it can be very hard to remember what some of your favorite colleagues look like.

On behalf of remote employees everywhere, I ask that you please take a moment to upload a picture of yourself into your email and instant messaging platform. And please make it a recent one. My own personal rule is that I need to change my photo every 2 years. You can take a flattering picture of yourself using your smart phone. Put on a work top, stand against a wall, raise the camera slightly above eye level, and take your shot. Adding a photo gives you the moral high ground to suggest that everyone on your team do the same thing.

If you are planning a work event, ask the participants to provide a photo of themselves, and share them with the group. I work for an educational company, and the event organizer created a set of flashcards–one side has the picture, the other has the name. I absolutely love them. A quick internet search yielded several sites like this one, that lets you make your own custom flash cards if you love this idea too.

I’ll be using my flashcards every day in the two weeks leading up to the event. I might still blank out if someone greets me from across the room, but at least now I have a fighting chance.

In person events can seem like a hassle if you only work from home. For instance, you might have to buy work clothes and put on shoes. However, approach the event as an opportunity to strengthen your working relationships for years to come. If you look at it that way, it’s easier to see how the benefits in such a trip can outweigh the inconvenience. Plus you might get some nice work shirts out of the deal.

How to Create Effective Team Building Activities

To create an effective team building day, give people a voice, give them choice, and make it accessible for all.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

In ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,’ Patrick Lencioni says that “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it’s so powerful and so rare.” While we can argue about how rare it is to find effective, high performing teams, there is research that suggests that you can improve team performance with team building activities.

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that actively tries to build a healthy remote team culture. Several years ago, one department started ‘In-service Day,’ and the sessions were so popular that other departments were invited to join in the fun. Now, if we want to get in to a certain session, we have to be quick to log onto the registration page as soon as the sign up email hits our inbox.

So how do you design a team building event or in-service day that employees want to attend? Here are four things to keep in mind:

Give People a Voice

Allow employees a voice in the process. Our ‘ISD’ (in service day) committee does this in two ways. First, they come up with some general topics, and then sends out a survey to see which ones rise to the top. This extra step saves them from spending hours putting together a presentation on a subject that few people will find interesting.

On that same survey, the ISD committee asks participants ‘if you could put together a 15 minute presentation on anything, what would it be?’ This has yielded some surprising (and highly popular) Ted-Talk style presentations. We’ve heard from people who spent a year reading books only by female authors, people who enjoy board games (and think you will too), and people who take fantastic vacations on a shoestring budget.

These shorter talks are a great way to take a mental break in between the longer, more traditional knowledge-building sessions. It’s also a great way to get to know colleagues. The most interesting thing about this success story, is that it came about almost by accident. When an early iteration of the committee was trying to generate ideas for ISD, someone said ‘maybe we should ask people about other topics they would like to hear about?’ When you ask people for their ideas, you may stumble across a jewel.

Give People a Choice

There is a school of thought out there that goes something like this: ‘We can’t please everyone, so we might as well plan an event that leadership likes. People will complain about it either way.’ It’s true that there will always be some folks out there who have to be dragged (metaphorically speaking) kicking and screaming to team building events. Most of these folks have had bad experiences with team building events in the past. That’s no reason to continue to confirm their bias.

Admittedly, there may be times that you need to train your employees on a specific topic, whether they want to attend or not. Topics such as workplace safety and security come to mind. Remember that these sorts of training sessions aren’t team building activities and shouldn’t be talked up as such. Your employees might spend some time bonding by complaining about compliance training, but the team building aspect is coincidental.

There are different ways to give employees a choice during team building activities. Depending on your budget and the number of participants, you may wish give participants the option to choose the sessions they attend. People who decide to attend a session are far more likely to get something out of it.

However, the most important choice, the choice you should never violate, is over how much personal information an employee is obliged to reveal. Some employees have survived terrible childhoods. Others belong to minority groups that face discrimination. Still others like to keep their personal lives separate from their work for their own private reasons. No one should feel forced to share personal information.

I learned this one the hard way. I was planning a party in honor of someone, and I asked a colleague–we’ll call him Don–if he would share a particular memory at the party. Don told me that he couldn’t do so, and he shared the extremely personal reason why he couldn’t. I apologized for asking. To this day I regret making him unexpectedly relive that memory.

What I should have done then (and what you can do now) is ask for volunteers. Something as simple as emailing the entire group saying ‘I’m planning a session on common in-service day planning mistakes and how to avoid them. If you would be willing to share a story about a time you created a truly boring team building activity, please let me know via email by Wednesday and I’ll be in touch,’ can solicit the same information without outing anyone.

While it’s true that employees can bond over shared vulnerability, that will only happen if the sharing is voluntary. Mandating shared vulnerability can potentially force some employees to relive traumatizing experiences. Don’t do it.

Give People Access

This is particularly important in you are planning an in-person (vs online) team building event. I had a boss who elected to get an MBA while fully employed, and his cohort was required to attend a 2 day team building event. At one point everyone was required to climb to the top of a telephone pole. (It wasn’t an actual pole with wires. I’m pretty sure using an actual working telephone pole is illegal.)

I remember thinking a) that I would have flunked MBA school on the first day because I am afraid of heights and while I have no problem climbing trees and riding roller coasters, there is no way I would willingly climb to the top of a pole and sit on it, and b) what did they do with the students who use wheelchairs? Telling people to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the team engages in a team building event sends the message that some people are second-class employees.

You still have to think about accessibility even when your team building event is remote. At my last team-building day, the organizers solicited facts from the participants ahead of time. Our job as a team was to guess which fact belonged to which person. Instead of just displaying the fact on the screen, the organizer also played a clip of someone reading the fact. This meant that every colleague–regardless of vision status–could participate in the activity.

It may feel overwhelming to try and make your event accessible to all. While you can do research on your own, this might be a good time to solicit information from the group. Again, you can email the participants ahead of time and say ‘I’d like to make sure our team building day is accessible to all. If you have ideas or tools that can help make this day available to people who have cognitive or physical impairments, please share them with me.’

As an aside, if you ask for this information, and people tell you how to make an event more accessible, use the information they give you. Asking for ways to make an event better and then ignoring the information is disengaging. For the best results, ask for accessibility tips early in the event planning process.

Creating an effective team building day requires thoughtful planning. But you don’t have to (and in most cases, shouldn’t) work in a vacuum. Give people a chance to partner with you. You will end up with great ideas you would never have thought about otherwise, avoid disengaging sessions, and create an event that is accessible for the entire team. The care and thought you pour into the event will shine through and leave employees feeling respected. And feeling respected is truly team building.

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.