You probably all remember the famous news clip of the professor who was being interviewed by BBC News when he was surprisingly gatecrashed by his two children. (If you don’t, or in case Professor Kelly was worried that we might all have forgotten about it, it’s archived on Twitter for the ages.)

It’s hard to believe that was five years ago, back when remote working was an unknown to many people; back when those of us (myself included) who chose to do it for a living were assumed to be some kind of hipster zen masters, putting our feet up and coding in our pyjamas. But now that we’ve all had a period of enforced home-working under our belts, it’s much easier to empathise with the struggles. Those random Zoom calls which are interrupted by partners, children, pets or the postman are funny for everybody in the moment, but behind the scenes, the person who’s suffering through the interruptions is waging an internal battle to balance their desire to be a productive member of their workforce, with the need to take care of those who matter most.

When you CAN all act like adults

If your workspace is within your home, and you’re sharing the space with other adults (or children who are at least teenagers), you should have the advantage of being able to have a rational conversation about your working situation. In Rebecca Seal’s book Solo, the author interviews workers from across the globe about their unique home working challenges, including this excerpt from Ingrid Fetell Lee which I’m sure will be all too real for some of us:

“It can get very displacing when you have two partners who work from home - for example he’ll need to take a phone call, and I need to change and get ready for something, but he’s taking a video call in the bedroom, which means I can’t go in there, and I need to shower. It’s so easy for work to displace the activities of the home”

As for what to do about it? Talking, and agreeing boundaries, can be a big help. Setting boundaries on your working hours - so that you know how long you’ve got to get your work done, rather than assuming your work can just bleed into both of your evenings - is a powerful move. Rebecca shares her own experiences of freelancing while being co-located with her partner:

“We made a plan; a set of rules about when we would work, in the hope that they would ease the pressure slightly: no working or talking about work before breakfast has been eaten; no working after 8pm; and no talking about work after 8pm either (we were allowed to break this once a week, only if it was really necessary). No working at weekends (we were allowed to break this once a month, and only in emergencies).”

If these are issues that you’re continuing to struggle with, I can wholeheartedly recommend Rebecca’s podcast The Solo Collective, where she interviews other professionals who are struggling to deal with managing their own working space.

The children conundrum

Talking and compromising on the needs of each of your family unit is all well and good, until young children - famously opinionated and somewhat lacking in logic - come into play. It’s an area that I’m still trying to adjust to myself: I’m fortunate in that my home office is located in an outbuilding at the bottom of our garden, meaning that there’s a large physical separation between my “home” space and my “working from home” space. But unless I somehow squeeze a kitchen and a toilet into the corner of my office, I’m still needing to enter the house regularly throughout the day, which can be heartbreaking when my son declares a loud “daddy!”, unaware that I’ll be disappearing again in another five minutes, with waterworks not far behind.

For all my years spent banging the drum of remote working, it’s days like this which make me long for a co-working space - and I’ve realised that just because I’ve built myself a dedicated home office, I shouldn’t fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy. Sometimes, it’s just better to work somewhere else. Once again, I’m fortunate enough to have another adult to fall back on; my wife is happy to take full charge of childcare on the two weekdays where my son is at home (a negotiation which is made possible because I’m paying for nursery on the other three days). If I desperately need to get work done on a Monday or Tuesday, going elsewhere might be the best option.

As much as I acknowledge my own failures in this area, I’m beginning to develop a pattern which works for my family, and might work for yours. Specifically, rather than half-heartedly trying to be all things to all people (trying to muddle through work while also still trying to entertain children on the side), establishing a strict delineation between “work time” and “parenting time” leads to better outcomes for both. In other words, for a given two-hour period, I might say “I need to go and work for the next 90 minutes, but then my son can have my dedicated focus for the next 30 minutes”. Of course, it’s helpful if you work for an employer who can support such productivity - and reducing the burden of meetings in your calendar can be a big bonus - but I’m sure they’d rather have 90 minutes of your full attention, rather than two hours of a distracted, fuzzy brain.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Avoid crossing the streams where possible - create delineations to find focus time.
  • Conversely, make sure that when you’re “off” work, you’re “off” - giving focus to your family is even more important (they’re a more long-term commitment!)
  • Don’t try to dictate these arrangements to your family - work together to create something which works for all of you.