How WFH Parents Can Actually Be Productive With Kids Underfoot

Trying to get some work done while also entertaining little ones at home? Not an easy task. Here, some top tips to help you do it all.
profile picture of Katherine Martinelli
ByKatherine Martinelli
Updated
May 2020
mom on the phone trying to work from home while her baby interrupts

For many, working from home is the dream—after all, being able to avoid long commutes, wear PJ bottoms all day and throw in a load of laundry in between calls are big bonuses. With the recent, rapid spread of COVID-19 and many workplaces closing their doors, parents who normally don’t have a telecommute option are suddenly creating makeshift home offices. It’s a big shift in routine to say the least—and with daycares and schools also shuttered, moms and dads are having to figure out how to be productive while simultaneously caring for their kids during the work day. Suffice to say, our reality is looking pretty different from that work from home (WFH) dream.

It can be tricky to balance it all without feeling like you’re falling short in one area or another. But with a solid plan, a few strategies and a bit of trial and error, you’ll master the WFH with kids gig. We asked experts and WFH parents for their top tips on how to work from home and actually be productive with young children underfoot. Here’s what they said.

Create a Schedule

Children of all ages (and adults) thrive on routine, and that doesn’t change in a time of pandemic. “I think you need some structure for the day for the kids and the parents so everyone has a sense of what’s next,” says Perri Shaw Borish, MSS, LCSW, BCD, a clinical social worker and founder of Whole Heart Maternal Mental Health. For babies, this can simply be a predictable rhythm of eat, play, sleep, while toddlers may benefit from a visual schedule to signal what’s next.

Establish Business Hours

When you work from home, there can be very little delineation between family time and business time. “When you run your business from home, it’s very easy to always be in a work mode, never shutting down,” says Antonina Mamzenko, a photographer and educator who has worked from home with her home-educated son since he was a baby. “But if you’re always working, you’re never 100 percent present with your family.” She suggests establishing clear working hours if possible, turning on email autoresponders if necessary and shutting off push notifications. Setting aside time to turn off work will also make you more productive in the long run.

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Set Realistic Expectations

Expectation management is crucial when it comes to working from home with kids—for you, your children and your coworkers or clients. “I think communicating what’s reasonable to your company, your boss or your team is important, and establishing boundaries around those expectations is really important,” says Borish. This can look like giving colleagues a heads up that they might hear children’s voices in the background of a call or saying you’re only available to talk at certain times.

Plan Ahead

To set yourself up for success, it can be very helpful to spend a bit of time at the end of the day planning the next. “Plan ahead the night before so you aren’t rushing in the morning trying to plan out activities between emails and calls,” suggests Richard Peterson, CFE and Chief Academic Officer at Kiddie Academy Educational Childcare. Mamzenko does this as well, and suggests starting with a list of the three most important things you need to get done the following day.

Keep Naptime Sacred

The golden rule of working from home with young children is don’t mess with naptime. Even for older toddlers who might be nap-resistant, Shaw says it’s crucial to at least enforce a quiet time, whether you choose to use that time for work or for a bit of much needed self-care. Peterson recommends trying to schedule any calls during your child’s nap “to minimize the background noise and help you focus on the conversation.”

Let Baby Take It All In

While parents often feel pressure to keep their babies entertained, postpartum doula and newborn care specialist Devon Clement of Happy Family After says that babies need far less than we think and in fact are often over stimulated. “Babies are learning every minute of every day about the world and their environment around them just from observing it,” she says. In fact, Clement argues that teaching your kids to entertain themselves and work through frustration from an early age will help them develop valuable skills early on.

Set Up a Safe Space

While you can’t exactly leave a baby to their own devices, you can make sure they have a babyproofed area in which to play. “The best way to handle working while watching your little ones is to set them up in safe environments, such as a play pen or floor mat with activities and toys, where you can see them while you’re working,” advises Lynell Ross, certified health and wellness coach, behavior change specialist and founder of Zivadream.

Another idea from Clement is to set your child up in a high chair where (depending on their age) they can messily eat finger foods, paint or play safely and within view while you work. You can even stick older kiddos in the tub! WFH mom Kelly B. says, “when my oldest was a toddler I didn’t have childcare, so spent a lot of time working in the bathroom while she entertained herself in the tub. At one point we were doing two baths a day!”

Try Babywearing

Of course, sometimes baby just needs to be held, which is sweet but can make it hard to get work done. Clement says that this is a great time to break out the baby carrier, learn how to use it safely (if you haven’t already) and get your baby snuggled up to you. They’ll be content to be so close, which will allow you to work at a computer (standing if that’s more comfortable), cook or get other work done. This is harder, though not impossible, with a toddler—try switching to a structured carrier on your back.

Set a Timer

“Be clear with kids about the amount of time you expect them to play independently,” says Nina Kaiser, PhD, a child psychologist, owner of Practice San Francisco family wellness center, and mom to two young children. She uses a visual timer (like Time Timer)—which counts down time in a concrete way—with her 3-year-old and says it has been a huge help in getting him to play independently for longer so she can get work done. Mamzenko also uses a timer for herself to do the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work in short, concentrated bursts. “Work in short chunks of time and forget multitasking,” she advises. “Concentrating just on one thing at a time for 15 to 20 minutes will give you better results than trying to do it all in an hour.”

Balance with a Partner

Some jobs require you to be clocked in during certain hours, even if you’re remote. But if it’s possible, being able to shift work time to odd hours can help fit it all in, particularly if you have a partner who can chip in. Let’s say they get off work at 5:30 p.m., then they can take over parenting while you get in a few hours of work. Or wake up super-early and get to work while your partner manages morning routines until they have to clock in. Make sure to have clear conversations about needs and expectations.

Roll with It

As important as it is to remain professional regardless of whether you’re at home or in an office, if you’re working from home with kids underfoot, you’re going to have to roll with some punches. “Sometimes your toddler is going to walk into the frame on a video call or have an emergency like spilled goldfish crackers,” says Jennifer Brick, a career success strategist with Capdeca Solutions and WFH mom. “If it happens, apologize for the interruption, hopefully share a laugh about it and move on.”

Practice Self-Compassion

There will be days when you feel like a boss who can do it all, and days when you feel like you’re failing at everything. Be kind to yourself. “Managing kids at home while simultaneously trying to work is incredibly hard,” says Kaiser. “Pick your battles with intention and cut non-essential tasks—work-related, home-related and parenting-related.”

Mamzenko agrees, adding, “none of us are superhuman, even if social media paints a beautiful picture of effortlessly working with a baby at home. It’s never the full story. Ultimately, you might just have to accept that you won’t get as much done with little kids around. And that’s okay—it won’t be forever.”

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