Busting Down the Office Door

Broken Door


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.

Conclusion

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.)


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Avdi Grimm writes and podcasts at Wide Teams, a blog and podcast for dispersed teams and remote workers. He lives and works with his wife and four children in southern Pennsylvania.
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Discussion

  1. TrafficColeman on the 24th November

    I do have work and family time put together at time, sometime I’m watching the Disney Chanel with my kids while writing an article..crazy.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  2. Shaun on the 24th November

    ‘Wear the baby’ can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that!

    • Avdi Grimm on the 29th November

      Awesome :-)

  3. Jonathan Callan on the 25th November

    Hi Avdi, lovely post. I’ve worked from home for just over a year now and I still find it tough to work with the family around me. We have a detached garage that’s been converted into an office so I can work there in relative peace. Last summer my kids played loudly in the garden and at the time it annoyed me. Looking back though it was actually really nice and I’m kinda looking forward to it next year. I don’t know if I could (or would be allowed) to work at the kitchen table with the rest of the family. Kudos to you for managing that one. I do look forward to when my kids are older and I can show them what exactly it is that I do. Who knows they may even grow up to be designers – god help them. :)

    • Avdi Grimm on the 29th November

      Hey, thanks for the kind words! And you’re right, sometimes you have to take a step back before you realize that what seemed like just an annoyance at the time was something that, in the long view, you’ll treasure.

  4. Debra on the 27th November

    I completely agree! If one of your goals is to spend more time with your family, closing the door on them is no different than going to a regular office!

    • Avdi Grimm on the 29th November

      Very well put!

  5. dewde on the 27th November

    Thoughtful article. You touched every-so-briefly on a reference to “life on the farm”. That made me pause. Surely, back in the day, family unity was accomplished by working together in concert. We need more of that I think.

    I’d like to push back a bit on one of your points, the “Partial presence is better than none at all” one. I find this creates more problems than it solves and is rarely a good idea. Especially when I am under an extreme deadline.

    I work in front of my computer and I play in front of my computer and it becomes a burden for my wife to figure out which I am doing at any given moment. In my experience, working casually, and intermittently, while hanging with the family is an invitation for miscommunication and frustration for all parties involved.

    • Avdi Grimm on the 29th November

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t put partial presence out there as an ideal or something to make routine; but in my experience it is occasionally better than the alternative. In general I try to completely avoid having a work crunch that keeps me away from spending quality time devoted to the family.

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