Just a few weeks back, hearing—or seeing!—our coworkers’ kids during a meeting would have been remarkable. Today, it’s all part of a day’s work. With schools and daycares closed the world over, and so many of us working remotely, the lines between work and home have blurred indeed. And while it’s delightful to see a child scurry past our screen, this situation is undeniably tough on parents.
To help our employees balance work and childcare, this week we distributed an internal work-from-home as a parent guide. It’s full of tips and shared practices that we have collected from parents at Microsoft, including making a plan as a family, communicating your schedule with your colleagues, and finding fun ways to keep kids engaged throughout the workday. We thought our customers might find it useful too, so we created a version for you to share with your employees as well.
Anne Michels on my team helped create this guide. As the mother of young Tori, Anne knows firsthand how challenging this moment can be for working parents. Here, I have asked her to share some of the ways she and her family are navigating through this time. Over to Anne.
When my husband and I got the note that our daycare would close in mid-March, it made us both anxious. How would we be able to work from home full-time while watching a toddler? Our daughter Tori just turned one, and she has more energy than the two of us together. Keeping her from doing things like putting stones into her mouth or eating out of the garbage requires constant supervision.
Fast-forward four weeks. After a full month of trying to balance two full-time jobs with caring for Tori, I won’t lie to you: it’s been tough. It’s been overwhelming. And it’s been exhausting. But little by little we’re starting to learn how to make this situation work. Here, I’m sharing the daily tips and hacks that are helping my family get through. I share them recognizing that every family is unique, and each of us are dealing with our own set of challenges. Still, I hope you’ll find them helpful as you make your way in this challenging moment.
1 Accept that there’s nothing normal about “the new normal”
All of our lives have been impacted by COVID-19, and uncertainty rules the day. We don’t know how long schools and daycares will stay closed, or when we’ll be able to return to our jobs, or even what “normal” life will look like when this is over. The only thing that is normal right now? Feeling anxious. This is a difficult and new situation for all of us, so remember to put your health and family first and to be kind to yourselves.
I learned this the hard way. When Tori’s daycare first closed, I tried to keep everything the same. I tried to work the same hours, and at the same pace. I tried to take care of Tori as I had done it before: cooking fresh meals for her, taking her out on walks every day, I even planned to use this time for sleep training! As you can imagine, this didn’t work. The first week, I barely slept. Pushing myself to do it all made me feel constantly on edge, and that wasn’t healthy for me, my relationship, or Tori.
It took me a while to accept that the current situation cannot be compared to our lives just a couple months ago. And we should not treat it as such. My husband and I have shifted from trying to be both the “best” parents and the “best” employees, and now are just trying to do the best we can to get through this moment.
2. Make a plan—but be flexible!
One thing my husband and I got right: as soon as we learned about Tori’s daycare closing, we made a game plan. Since we both have fulltime jobs, we decided to share the load and divide the day into shifts. Every weekday, one of us works in the morning, the other watches Tori. And then we switch in the afternoon. That way, we both get a block of time to focus on work. We’ve also shared our calendars with each other which helps if we need to make a spontaneous change.
While it’s really nice to have a plan, I’ve learnt to not be too strict about it. Things come up at work every day we can’t plan for, and that’s at least doubly true for parenthood! Flexibility allows us to respond to Tori’s needs while also staying reasonably on top of our workloads.
3. Rethink work
When I watch Tori, I cannot not work as I normally would. So I had to rethink both work hours and my priorities. I now often work early in the mornings or later at night when Tori is in bed. And with time feeling so limited these days, I am prioritizing the most important work and concentrating solely on driving that work forward.
Before making any changes, I discussed with my manager who had some good input on where I should put my priorities. I also recommend for everybody to talk to their HR team to understand options that your company might offer to support parents during this time. Microsoft, for example, has made additional leave options available to parents for who are unable to work while home with their kids at this time.
4. Communicate early and often
If you decide to shift your work hours, make sure to communicate this to the people you work with. My team and my coworkers rely on me, and I want to make sure that my changed hours do not slow them down. I communicate my availability in multiple ways—through a status message in Microsoft Teams, an out-of-office message in Outlook mail, and blocked offline hours on my calendar. I have also started to share proactive updates more regularly, especially if there are any changes to the timeline of a deliverable or a project. This allows my colleagues to plan work on their side accordingly.
5. Make the most of meeting time
After having worked from home for four weeks, I’ve discovered a couple of hacks that allow me to be productive while watching Tori. Like a lot of people, I have meetings throughout the day, but I don’t always have to be in front of a laptop for them. So I’ve begun lining up walks with Tori during calls or meetings. Tori and I get some fresh air, and I can sneak in a little exercise as well.
At home, I join most meetings with my phone using wireless headphones. This way, I can join a call while sitting next to Tori as she plays on the floor. At her age, I don’t think she realizes that I’m not talking to her but to a coworker. The downside is that I can’t switch my video on and that her first words might be “retention policies” or “sign-up flow.” But I take a win where I can get it!
While every day brings new challenges, our family is learning to balance working from home with childcare during this unprecedented time. We’ve found that accepting the limitations of the situation, creating a family schedule, rethinking how we approach work, communicating early and often, and trying new approaches to meetings have all helped us get work done while also taking care of our kid. While I recognize that every situation is different, I hope these tips help you and your family as you navigate your own new normal.