The women I work with are inspiring, brilliant businesswomen, incredible writers, and are well-traveled and creative – and most also are balancing all of that with caregiving, both as moms and/or caring for loved ones. We usually work from an idyllic location in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but as the novel coronavirus has us under stay-at-home orders, we are adjusting to working miles apart in our own homes and with our families. We are facing new challenges as employees, individuals, and caregivers.
As a new mom and a new employee to Furia Rubel, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 stay-at-home order has completely disrupted my schedule and the balance we had previously. Since our daycare has closed, I’m working from home with two toddlers – most days on my own – and trying to figure out this new norm and establish a new schedule and balance. My co-workers all are experiencing challenges working from home with school-age children, young adults who are home from college, parents, and spouses.
You are not alone if you are struggling to find balance in your new home office. Below are some of our team’s best observations, tips, and tricks for finding balance in this uncertain situation.
1. Set a schedule but be flexible
Our office is “open” during our regular business hours, while still allowing our team members to maintain individual flexibility. We are prioritizing tasks, supporting each other and accomplishing what needs to be done. Our team is leveraging Zoom for daily check-ins and Slack throughout the day to keep each other posted on those times when we need to step away for lunch breaks, to set up school programs or doctors’ appointments, and for our own mental health.
That flexibility looks slightly different for everyone. Today, I’m sitting at the dining room table reviewing projects before the sun (and my kids) get up. Last week, one of our clients needed us to update their website over the weekend. Our breaks may look a little different too. A few days ago, my co-worker’s son declared a soccer emergency, so Heather needed to go outside and play with him. It’s all about balance.
Balancing the schedules of schoolwork, spouses working from home, and meetings can be challenging, but as long as we are accomplishing our goals, the autonomy can be encouraging.
2. Find activities to prevent boredom
This next tip applies to everyone, but especially to parents whoa re trying to occupy and educate children. Having something different in rotation keeps the days fresh and engaging. Rainy days make parents even more resourceful in finding new and creative ways to incorporate learning inside.
Furia Rubel’s Director of Business Development Jennifer Carr shares that she has been tapping into her creativity in different ways than she has in the past. “We’ve created indoor obstacle courses that incorporate reading, math and physical activity. We’ve found ways to use card and board games, such as Yahtzee, to incorporate different learning that supports math and writing skills. Our five-year-old daughter is learning through play, and it has been fun for both her and us as parents. It has helped me mentally transition from the ‘task’ of teaching to the opportunities we have every day to make learning fun and engaging.”
Several years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I follow BusyToddler for activity inspiration. From sensory bins to easy bathtub activities, it has lots of great ideas to change things up. FamilyeGuide provides a boredom-busting list of fun and mostly free activities.
3. Embrace screen time
For many caregivers working from home, days are planned around increments of work time. I have activities that occupy my toddlers for short windows of time. However, when I need solid working time, screen time is my secret weapon. From school to recreational activities, allowing screen time (or extra screen time) not only helps adults get some work done, it may also be a necessity for scholastic programs and staying connected to support systems during this time of physical distancing.
Beyond programs being provided by educational institutions, great options abound for developmentally appropriate content. From toddler-friendly resources like PBS Kids to museum and zoo tours (Travel and Leisure) that entertain both the young and the young at heart, a plethora of content captures a variety of interests. Additionally, many companies and organizations are offering additional free content during the pandemic. THE Journal highlights education technology companies that are providing free content, and Common Sense Media has recommendations for kid-appropriate content.
4. Plan for interruptions
Dogs want to go outside, then inside, then outside every five minutes. Toddlers have meltdowns. Roommates who are currently laid off are home with nothing to do. An endless array of distractions can impact your workday, so planning for interruptions can help you cope. Here are the work-from-home recommendations that I’ve found most applicable during this time:
- Create a designated workspace, preferably one that’s away from the television and other distractions.
- Use the mute button during conference and video calls; this is my lifesaver when my toddler is screaming “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom!” in the background.
- Create a nonverbal cue or “Do not disturb” when you need uninterrupted time. A ribbon on the door, a funny hat that you wear during calls – obviously not for video calls unless you make it the theme of the meeting.
- Set the expectation. Sharing up front that you have children, pets, or someone else working from home can help your team be more understanding when interruptions occur.
- When all else fails, reschedule the call or take the conversation online.
Interruptions can be frustrating, especially when you’ve just hit your groove. Over the last week, I’ve committed myself to the present moment even with interruptions – picking up my toddler and the book she dropped at my feet for a few cuddles as we read before getting back to work. This has helped me reduce the angst I was feeling and reassures my toddler that everything is going to be okay.
5. Reach out to your support systems
Social distancing has made the usual support systems a bit more complex.
For parents with young children, things are often more challenging. Stay-at-home orders and exemptions are limited to life-sustaining and essential activities only, and do not include child care services except for workers that have been deemed essential. While that leaves many without their usual means of childcare, there will still be days that you need help or to reallocate your time. Spouses, partners, and older children can be a great source of support and child care relief. When my husband is home, we do our best to split childcare duties so we both can get in some uninterrupted work time.
Conference and video calls seem to be particularly challenging for my toddlers. They aren’t old enough to understand the need to be quiet during work calls, like many school-age kids do. When gummy worms stop working, I often leverage our support system and let my kids chat with their grandparents, aunts and uncles or cousins during my call. My dad and I laugh about all the Facetime he’s had with our ceiling fan while I’m finishing a call/meeting.
Those with older children also are in uncharted waters, as many college students have returned home to complete their spring semesters online. Colleges are ramping up distance learning, converting courses, transitioning syllabi and grading structures. Parents are establishing ground rules with young adults back home and are serving as sounding boards and educational advocates. As everyone adjusts, Furia Rubel’s Founder and CEO, Gina Rubel shares the silver lining. “I never expected to have both of my kids back at home under the same roof for this duration of time.” While she rearranges working spaces for distance learning, Gina is embracing this unexpected time with her children.
For those who are caregiving for adults, there are some additional blessings. Furia Rubel’s Office Manager, Rose Strong shared the advantage of supporting and caring for her wife, who is dealing with metastatic breast cancer and medicine management to keep cancer at bay. Rose and her wife are usually juggling schedules, travel arrangements and doctor’s appointments with complex information. During the pandemic, all her wife’s doctor appointments have been virtual, by phone or telemedicine. It once was a puzzle to try to carve out time away from the office to go to appointments or pick up medications, but that has been a breeze during this work-from-home time.
6. Develop coping mechanisms
Many people, both adults and children, are living with fear, stress, and anxiety, and we often are experiencing it in waves that can be triggered by new changes, information or challenges. To manage fear, stress, and anxiety, the CDC recommends:
- Keep open lines of communication
- Focus on the facts
- Limit media/exposure to social media – Rose addressed this in her recent blog post, How much is too much news?.
- Take care of yourself and others – Seek out calming activities, eat healthy, exercise and get plenty of sleep
- Check in with family and friends – To this last bullet point, I’m adding peers and mentors.
Many people experience moments when their friends or family are on a different stage of life – the last to have kids, the only one who’s married, the only one to have lost both parents, etc. These moments can be isolating, but connecting with peers outside of your existing friends and family can be reassuring and help you manage through tough moments. If you are looking for additional support, there are many online support groups. Mentors can also be empowering to connect with, helping you to reframe the challenges and experiences. They often are a source of inspiration and motivation.
7. Communicate expectations
Being up front and communicating your needs and the needs of those you are caring for during this time is important to manage expectations. It might be a doctor’s appointment, grocery store run, story time or back yard soccer game that you need to step away to attend. Any of these things can help you meet your or your loved ones’ needs before you jump back into your work. Setting realistic expectations with yourself and others can be a key way to cope with fear, stress, and anxiety. Right now, caregivers are expected to do multiple jobs at the same time (parent, teacher, employee), and students are expected to learn in unfamiliar environments with new technologies and with little training or time for adjustment. Acknowledging the limitations of resources, time, energy, and technology is important to help keep our expectations in check.
The first time I heard Gina say, “We all need to do our best, and that means different things. If today you are sick, then your best may be staying in bed and not working,” I felt connected. Our expectations may not always meet with our abilities. So, if today your best is learning a new language, that’s incredible, but it’s also okay if your best is just getting through the day.
I remember when my husband would come home from work right after our second child was born. Toys were everywhere, laundry was unfolded, and snacks were still on the table. He asked how my day was and many days my answer was “we all survived.” In numerous ways, I feel transported back to those moments. Days are full of activity with school, play and work all getting done, but other things are left unfinished or incomplete. Some days it feels like we barely made it through…and that’s okay.
It’s also okay to reach out for help if you need it. The National Institute of Mental Health offers a list of resources if you are in crisis.
8. Embrace the moment with kindness
With all of the challenges of schools and non-essential businesses being closed, a supply chain that is struggling to keep up with demand (especially for toilet paper!), and social interactions that are limited, it’s not surprising that we all have needed a moment of adjustment. But one thing I’ve seen and try to model is the amazing strength and resilience that we all have, especially as caregivers. We tackle the unexpected, process new information, and make it happen.
It’s important to remember to be kind to ourselves. We are living through an unprecedented time. And be kind to others – we don’t know what challenges they are facing: toddlers melting down, children struggling without their peers, teens feeling overwhelmed with the college process, and balancing telemedicine appointments. As we face these and other new challenges as the pandemic evolves, establishing work-life balance and continuing to function in this new reality is going to take some time. We are all going to face challenges that we didn’t expect a few weeks ago. It’s okay to struggle, succeed or just make it through. We are all in this together.