Working from home has definite advantages. Mostly the (lack of) commute, as well as the wardrobe. (I’m currently wearing workout clothes while writing this article.) Being able to eat a healthy meal or two while working is also a perk, compared to grabbing lunch on the go. I find that I get up from my desk more frequently, and I go for several walks throughout the day, which helps clear my mind and improves my work product.
Of course, at this point in time, working from home also gives us the comfort of protecting ourselves — and others — from this terrible virus, as we all do our part to flatten the curve.
Then there are the downsides to working from home. I can’t pop into my co-worker’s space for a quick clarification like I can in the office. Overall, communication is a bit more challenging, and the equipment at the office is far more sophisticated than what I have at home. I also have a hard time knowing when to stop working, since there’s always more to do than a normal workday can accommodate.
But the biggest drawback is the distraction from my new co-workers. For me, this includes my husband, my dad (who is also a neighbor), and my dad’s dog, who believes the family should stop whatever they’re doing when she enters the room. All of these new co-workers want attention throughout the day, and sometimes they’re loud when I’m working or are otherwise interfering in my workspace.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to dozens of moms and dads whose new co-workers are their kids, which is an even greater challenge — especially if your children are under the age of 10. These little people are used to who you are when you come home from work, so they don’t know how to be in the same space with you when you’re working. They may also have “work” to do in the form of schoolwork or chores, but their “workplace” is entirely new and far less structured than it used to be in their classrooms, so they really can’t be left to their own devices.
Creating healthy work-from-home norms
In working with teams of folks in organizations, we’ve helped hundreds of people develop healthy ways of working together, and I’m happy to tell you these norms apply to working among your family members as well. The “magic” isn’t a secret; it involves communicating expectations openly and making agreements about how to share your workspace with each other.
But first, it’s important to understand the change in power dynamics when we work from home. At work, there may be a hierarchy, but when it comes to sharing a workplace, co-workers act as equals: co-workers won’t interrupt you in a meeting (without a good reason), everyone picks up their messes, and no one throws a tantrum when you’re on a phone call.
At home, we think we’re the rule-makers, and we forget to treat our new co-workers as equals in determining what works (and what doesn’t) in the new normal of our daily lives. This is an important distinction that you must take ownership of before you sit down with your family members to share expectations and make agreements.
When my sons were younger, we occasionally had “the family meeting.” Although it was often greeted with resistance, we typically dealt with some very important stuff at these meetings, and they proved to be valuable conversations. Here are a few tips you might want to try out:
Explain why. Tell your family you recognize everyone has made an adjustment, and that some parts of this new daily routine are working better than others, so now is a good time to figure out what you want it to look like going forward.
Ask, don’t tell. Invite everyone to share what they like — and what they don’t like — since they started sharing their “workday” with you. The level of sophistication in this conversation will vary (mostly by age). Still, the level of engagement will almost entirely be based on whether your family believes you genuinely want to hear what they have to say, so be sure to listen and talk about their input. This is important.
Brainstorm priorities. It’s a good idea to have everyone write down their top priorities. How can your new time together be productive and meaningful? Ask everyone to write down five things that really matter to them. You should also write down your priorities; you need to be an equal in this conversation, too.
Draft agreements. Once you’ve hashed out likes, dislikes, and priorities, you need to move toward making some agreements about how your days will be spent. Start by acknowledging any conflicts. For example, if Terry wants to spend more time practicing the drums, and Gina wants to have more time to read, these two things probably shouldn’t happen at the same time. The end agreement is likely to look like a schedule for the day or the week.
Separate work time from family time. It’s also important to recognize and agree about how to turn off the workday and go back to family time, so that your family has some sense of the “old normal” mixed in with the new.
If your past family meetings haven’t looked like this, then perhaps it’s because you, as the parent, have done all of the talking, and the kids are just trying to survive until you’re done talking. If you want your kids to take shared responsibility for making things work, you need them to feel like they’re equals in developing the new team norms.
A side note: I tried this type of family meeting with my new co-workers. We’re doing pretty well at keeping our agreements and creating new ones as we go along. Except for the dog. She still believes everyone should stop everything when she enters the room!
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Cathy Bush, Ph.D., has spent decades investing in the development of leaders as an organizational psychologist, consultant, professor, coach, and author. She has worked with leaders around the globe to create the organizational cultures people love to work for — and clients love to work with — in a wide array of industries, including manufacturing, transportation, publishing, healthcare, retail, and banking. She is the co-author of the new book The Demotivated Employee: Helping Leaders Solve the Motivation Crisis That is Plaguing Business. Learn more at TheLeadershipDoctors.com.