How to balance childcare with working from home
With schools closing as part of the government's attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many accountants are juggling the demands of helping clients through the crisis and home-schooling their children. Blaire Palmer offers helpful tips to parents balancing the demands of childcare with life in the virtual accounting office.
You’re working at home. So far no biggie. After all, we’ve been talking about remote working for years and most of us have had a few days working from the dining table when we’ve been waiting for a delivery that could come any time between 10am and 3pm.
But working from home with the kids at home? That’s another matter.
Who can forget Professor Robert Kelly being interviewed on BBC News while his yellow-jumpered daughter and baby-on-wheels gatecrashed the spare bedroom/home office? Now that the schools are closed, and we are all but confined to our homes, next time it could be you.
I’ve been home educating for three years while running my business from home. My daughter was nine years old when we started and, at 12 years old, she still doesn’t quite get the rules of conference calls.
But over the last three years, we have learnt a huge amount about how to combine work, education and play and so far no client has complained (and most wouldn't even know). It is possible to work from home with children at home and be productive. More than that, as a senior leader in your firm it will fall to you to support parents who are reluctantly doing the same.
The uncomfortable truth
The bottom line is that it is impossible to do your full 8-10 hour working day uninterrupted by children if your children are home all day, especially if you also have responsibility during this time for educating them.
I have reconfigured my business over the years to allow for breaks during the day and a more flexible diary. Expecting your staff to work at home with children around just like they do in the relative quiet of the office is going to lead to major issues.
This is all hard enough without a boss who doesn’t tolerate baby noises, or a manager who expects you to be at your desk from 9-6, or team members who complain that you seem a bit distracted bt the ruckus coming from the kitchen. You are going to have to adapt.
Do the maths
Not all work is important. People might be in the office for nine hours a day but they aren’t actually productive or making a difference all of that time. In fact, my company’s research suggests that while we spend at least 30% of our time in meetings, half of that time contributes nothing to the business. That’s nearly a day a week.
Then there’s the chitchat in the break room, not being able to focus because your office neighbour talks too loud, walking to and from meetings, being collared by a colleague with an issue that’s vital to them but meaningless to you and doing work you like but that isn’t essential to the bottom line.
From now until this crisis is over focus only on work that makes a difference, that serves the client, that keeps the business going. That won’t be everything. Help staff identify what really matters and delegate the rest to the floor.
Not all work requires full focus
Even when you get back to basics, there’s still work that doesn’t need your full attention like sifting through emails, diary management, creating presentation slides or making an Excel.
Don’t be surprised if your staff do this work in front of the TV with the kids present. Right now children are way out of their element. They need parents to be around, not locked in the home office.
Being able to do a bit of work on your laptop while the little ones watch Peppa Pig makes this whole situation less unsettling for kids and allows parents to buy themselves some uninterrupted time later on for important client calls.
Children will interrupt
You can create boundaries and offer inducements but it’s always just at the moment you’re trying to close the sale or take a complicated brief that your youngest stubs their toe and screams for you.
The good news is that this isn’t normal life. Everyone appreciates that you haven’t chosen to do it this way. It’s been enforced. As a leader, you will need to take a deep breath too and remember the long game.
Eventually, your people will return to the office, either feeling great appreciation for your support or deep loathing of the intolerance they experienced in a situation totally out of their control.
The day has become more flexible
Without the commute or the school run, the day can start earlier or later and finish earlier or later. Weekends cease to have meaning. Thursday could be the new Saturday. Home education can happen at 6pm. Work can be done at 6am.
Juggling childcare, education and work means that working parents may need to spend the afternoon with the children, not checking emails on their phone every two seconds. Instead, they will write the report you need at 11pm or reply to emails at 7am.
Take a deep breath and remember this – when children feel they’ve had the undivided attention of their parents they are more likely to leave them alone when something important and urgent crops up with work.
The way we work is determined by the situation and by our surroundings. In the office with children safely at school, nursery or after-school clubs people can work a certain way. That’s what we are used to and it has become the norm.
But it has led to presenteeism, busy-work and piling more and more on to people just because someone else is taking care of things at home.
Now we are in a different situation and different surroundings and our expectations have to change. Leaders are called leaders for a reason – they are upfront, embracing change ahead of others, leading the way and making change a little safer for people.
That’s your job right now – not to fight this but to clear to way for people to do the near impossible. This is the true test of a leader.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...