The conventional wisdom for remote workers with families is that it is essential to create clear separation between work time and family time. “Make sure you have an office with a door, and keep that door closed during business hours”. But what would happen if we turned that wisdom on its head?
Working From the Heart of the Household
I’m writing this article at the dining room table late on a Monday afternoon. I’m sharing the table with my wife, two of my children and a constantly changing number of cats. Sometimes the conversation gets distracting. Occasionally, my two-year old climbs onto my lap and interrupts my work.
The gurus of productivity would say that by mixing work and family time I’m shortchanging my family and killing my efficiency. Which is true to a point, and I wouldn’t want to spend all of my time splitting my focus like this. But for me, the ability to work from within the living system of my family is one of the reasons I chose to work from home.
Bringing Work and Family Back Together
And being surrounded by family can be more than just a distraction from work. The notion of drawing a strict line between home and work is a relatively recent innovation. For much of human history, a family’s labor and it’s recreation were organically intermingled. As children grew up, they were smoothly integrated into the work of the household, often learning their parent’s trade from a young age.
I’m not advocating a return to child labor. But mixing work with family time can actually bring a family closer together, take some of the sting out of unpleasant tasks, and ward off burn-out.
Here are some of the ways you might mix work and home life in a positive way:
- Wear the baby. In my office I have both a traditional sit-down desk and a standing desk. I’ll often put our youngest, who is still an infant, in a sling around my shoulders and work standing up for an hour or more. I’ve found it easy to gently rock the baby back and forth while tapping out code and collaborating with my remote coworkers. My wife gets a break from the baby, the baby gets “daddy time”, and I burn some extra calories to boot!
- Teachable moments. Before writing this article, I was producing an episode of the Wide Teams Podcast. Our teenaged daughter was sitting at the table looking bored, so I invited her to look over my shoulder. For the next half hour I showed her how I mix the show together and turn it into a blog post, explaining things like audio compression and frequency analysis along the way. As a homeschooling family, we regard moments like these not just as extra credit, but as a core part of their ongoing practical education. No matter what your profession, as a remote worker you can draw lessons out of just about any part of your work. From updating a website, to writing code or copy, to interacting with clients, to balancing the books, there is knowledge to be passed on. As an experiment, try giving your kids a license to climb into your lap or pull up a chair during certain hours of the day. You might be surprised at the questions they ask and all the skills they pick up. And if nothing else, you’ll never regret the extra time spent with them.
- Many hands make light work. The natural next step from teaching your children about what you do, is getting them to help. Having the kids help out with your work isn’t just for family farms. After going over the audio mixing process with my daughter a few more times, I might ask her to take over the post-production of my podcast. Younger children can be tasked with tidying up the office – and you might be surprised how eagerly they do it if it means spending more time with you! As they get older you may even be able to employ them and garner a tax deduction.
- Partial presence is better than none at all. We’ve all had one of those projects – the deadline is close, or has already flown by. The client is unhappy. You’re working twelve-hour days, or worse. You can’t remember what color the sky is. Of course, in a perfect world you’d never have a project get out of hand. But back in this universe, it’s sometimes a choice between working overtime and not getting paid. Unlike your office-bound counterparts, though, you do have once choice: you can choose to hole up in your office with your work, or you can choose to camp out on the couch. When you choose the couch, even if it means you are head-down in your work while the family watches TV, at least they can see you. And you can look up from time to time and be reminded of why it’s all worth while.
If you work from home, I don’t recommend spending all of your working hours in the midst of your family. Anyone who does creative work needs periods of intense, uninterrupted focus. But when you choose sometimes to work in the midst of the happy chaos of family life, it can actually serve to bind the family closer together. And even if your productivity isn’t at 100% during those times, you may find that integrating your work and home life has compensations that more than make up for the loss.
(Image courtesy of ogimogi under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)