We’re a fully-remote team at SkyVerge, so working from home isn’t new to us. But… working from home during a global pandemic is. The “new normal” has been an especially big change for all the parents on our team, who now find their kids home with them 24 hours a day—with no schools, daycare, or even playgrounds available to help keep them busy.
I sat down with four of the parents at SkyVerge to talk about how they’ve been making it work during this time of self-isolation, their advice to other working parents who are now facing this situation, and general tips on how to work, parent, and stay sane during these challenging times.
Catherine Scallen: Let’s start by going around and introducing yourselves.
Liz Wright: I’m Liz, and I’m on our customer support team and based out of Colorado. I have two kids, one is two-and-a-half and the other just turned one. Both are girls and both are very independent, rambunctious, mischievous. They’re learning how to double the trouble together. Maybe it quadruples. I don’t know the math, but it’s a lot.
Simon Porter: Hi, I’m Simon, a technical support engineer in Salisbury, in the U.K. I’ve got two daughters, one is five and one who’s just turning nine next month. The youngest one will wind the oldest one up something rotten. So she is far worse [right now], but it’s a lot more fun.
Lindsey Fogle: Hi, I’m Lindsey, I live in Virginia, and I work on the product team as a product manager for our WooCommerce extensions. I have one daughter and she’s going to be two next month. She’s usually pretty laid back but I think she’s definitely getting cabin fever right now.
Ian Misner: I’m Ian, I live in Ontario, Canada. I head up the support team and help out across both the WooCommerce extensions and Jilt. And I have five kids, all home from school right now. Ages nine, seven, five, three, and almost one. I like school. School’s not happening.
Catherine: I didn’t realize, we have such a strong showing from the support team. I didn’t even plan that. All right. Welcome support team.
Lindsey: Meanwhile, the support queue…
Catherine: My first question is about how you’re structuring your days, and work days, right now. Has your routine shifted?
Ian: Typically, my wife and I share a Google Calendar that dictates where we are and where our kids are. That’s gone, we got rid of it, it doesn’t work right now. So it’s been mostly really relying on the company to be very open to last minute shifts and expectations. And being open to kids suddenly appearing on Zoom chats—one of my daughters has shown up in a few meetings recently.
Lindsey: I’ll jump in because my [old] schedule was almost the exact opposite. In a typical week, my daughter would go to daycare so I’d just work a normal schedule. My husband [who also works remotely] and I now sit down every week, look ahead, and block off our calendar so we know who will be working or watching Jean at a given time. So it’s definitely a lot less structured, because I just typically worked nine to five and was done, maybe a little bit in the evening—but now I’m making up a lot in the evenings and trying to fit in time.
Liz: It’s been a major shift for me. Normally, both of my daughters are home with me, but my parents are also here. They’d each take one kid and run off and do things with them, get them out of the house. Now my parents aren’t coming over because we’re trying to take precautions. And my husband’s home, which he’s normally not, and he has a job where he’s always making calls. So there are lots of times I need to keep the children quiet—that’s a whole new struggle.
We’ve been trying to split responsibility. He’s not on the phone all day, so when he’s not, I’ll get some work done. I’ve always been a night owl, so I do a lot of work at night, which has been kind of nice. And my husband’s been taking on more of the morning duties so I can sleep a bit more.
Simon: The kids used to go to school before, drop them off at nine o’clock, they were there until three. Now that’s out the window. At the moment we are homeschooling with all the schools closed, so I’ve started working a lot later as well. The beauty of working here is that it’s adaptable, I can do that. My wife’s a nurse, she only works when she can book a shift as well. So she’s flexible—if she wasn’t here, it would be a nightmare.
Catherine: Screen time is always something that comes up with modern parenting—and increased screen time is happening all over the world. What would you say to parents worried about their kids’ screen time?
Ian: I know there’s a lot of controversy about putting your kids in front of the screens. I don’t care. I just gave them stuff that I feel good about putting them in front of. There are a lot of cool companies that make educational software for kids, and a lot of them are giving away stuff for free right now. There’s the cool RPG game I got my kids playing where they have to do math problems to be able to fight in the game. And just like that, they’re learning math. Give me a break!
Liz: Screen time is… there are screens. We try to make it educational, but sometimes that’s what it is. I think it’s about knowing what’s on their screens. I like Khan Academy Kids, which is good for even two- or three-year-olds, which I was surprised by. Now my three-year-old can really navigate my phone because it teaches you a lot of how to drag and drop, how to have patience to open things. Also reading and learning and all that good stuff too—but really, she’s gotten very good at opening my phone. Don’t leave any credit cards on there. I guess that’d be my advice. Make sure those are all off.
Simon: Yeah, you got to love the third babysitter in the house, the iPad, although I do try to use that just for disaster scenarios. But since the whole COVID-19 thing has come out, there’s been a load more free live streams on YouTube that are seriously good.
Like today, the kids were watching [our local] zoo, Chester Zoo, and they had a live stream of all the animals throughout the whole day. So it was an hour of elephants just walking around and red pandas. The kids were going crazy just literally watching animals. It was ace.
And we’ve got a local DJ who’s famous on the kids circuit for doing kids’ parties. He’s called Disco Dion, by the way. He started doing a live stream every day at four o’clock from his living room. And it’s better than you even imagine, because his kids and his wife just walk in while he’s dancing up and down in front of his computer in the living room. It’s ace.
Oh and at 9 AM there’s a kids exercise class by Joe Wicks—there were nearly 800,000 people this morning doing it. So there’s tons of stuff on there.
Catherine: Maybe it’s too early within all this to say, but is there anything you’ve experienced that you will take back into your structure once this is all over?
Ian: Well, in an attempt to give the kids more structure because they are home from school, we’ve got a lot of vaguely educational activities that we’re doing in a group all together. And I’d like to pretend that we always did that all the time, but all seven of us sitting down to do artwork or math homework never really happened before. It’s actually a lot of fun and the kids really enjoy working together on that sort of thing. So there’s an upside here. There’s an upside somewhere.
Lindsey: One thing that we have discovered is our daughter really likes to feel like she’s helping and doing a thing. She’s not great at doing chores yet, but she will move laundry from the washer to the dryer. She’ll wash dishes with me, which is just her taking it from me and putting it in the drying rack. That was out of necessity because I’m like, there’s only one of me, I need to wash all these dishes, so hey, let’s do it together. But it’s actually been cool getting her carrying her weight, such as it is, around the house and picking up after herself, helping with chores and things like that.
Simon: As much as I joke about it, it’s way more fun having them at home. I know school’s great and yeah, you’ve got the schedule and stuff, but it’s fun having them run in and just show you a silly drawing of a hairy dog. I’m going to miss that when this all blows over. I’d rather work late at night and have this during the day. I wouldn’t give it up but I’m going to have to at some point.
Lindsey: That is so sweet and I feel like a jerk now for not saying that. Whoops.
Liz: I’m learning they can be more independent than I expect. So just finding things that keep them creating and doing their own thing. Certain things that don’t seem very fun to an adult can keep a kid entertained for hours. Giving them my marbles, they just can grab them and play with them. We have a water table so I just gave them water and they just ran in circles with water for a half hour. I watch them, but they don’t need as close of an eye as I would think.
Catherine: I remember water tables, those things are awesome. Say a company is entering into the remote work space for the first time. What’s the most helpful structure they can put in place for parents who are working from home with kids right now?
Lindsey: What I really value here and I think other companies should try to emulate as much as they can is being very okay with delayed responses to Slack or an email. I don’t worry about missing something or holding up someone else’s work if I step away, because we all understand that instant responses don’t always happen. Everyone knows to move on, do another thing, and then wait for the information to come back to you. That helps with unpredictable nap times and schedules, especially now.
Simon: Take flexible work hours to the extreme, because they work really well. If the kids come in and say, “Come play football with me,” you just do it and there’s no problem with that. You’ll fit in that work elsewhere. That flexibility is the main thing I’d recommend.
Liz: I really appreciate having extreme flexibility too, even in a support role, because a lot of times, support is the one team that has to be locked into specific hours. But it’s better for me, and for the company, if I’m working when I’m at my best. I’m not at my best at 9 AM, ever. Never happened. For some reason, I’m better at 10 PM. So I’m able to work when my brain is working best, and other times, I just go play and have fun with my kids.
Ian: I’ve always worked whenever I happen to be around. And the reality is, if a kid shows up and asks me to come play Nintendo, we’re going to go play Mario Kart for a while. It’s just what happens. Plus everyone has those moments where you’re just not feeling it. You’re not going to do your best work. At this job I just leave for a while and I come back and I do my best work later. Pandemic or not, that doesn’t change.
Lindsey: I feel that’s especially important now, because of all the stress and constant news, my brain is much more scattered than usual. So being able to say, “Okay, I just need to go take a walk around the block, go think about something else, not try to work through this stress”—that’s really helpful.
Liz: My older daughter is getting jealous of how much attention my younger daughter sees. Normally I have both my parents feeding my daughters’ attention needs all the time. So it really helps to have the ability to say, “Okay, I’m just going to take 10 minutes to hold you because you’re crying.”
Catherine: I want to make sure we also touch on how y’all are taking care of yourselves during this time. Curve ball, didn’t prep you for this one!
Ian: This is actually a lot harder. Juggling everything has definitely been harder than usual. Like I said, I work whenever anyways, but that time feels like it’s spread out a lot over the last couple of weeks.
There are a couple of little routines that I’ve been keeping to help me feel better about it. One, at the end of each day I have been making time to play Fortnite with my oldest daughter. I love it. She’s better than I am and it’s super fun.
And two, it’s going to sound like I’m joking, but our prime minister in Canada, Justin Trudeau, has an 11 o’clock meeting with the country and I’ve been watching that every day. He just has the kindest, most reassuring voice ever and I’ve really been enjoying that. I leave it every day and I go have lunch with my family and I tell my wife that Justin says everything is fine. That joke is not funny but I will not stop.
Simon: When you said the other day [at our full company meeting] that you were going to “see Justin to find out everything was all right,” I thought you meant Justin [Stern, cofounder and CTO of SkyVerge]. I was like… that is the weirdest meeting to have just to let you know that everything’s okay, but if he’s doing that, that sounds great.
Catherine: I definitely also thought it was our Justin and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know Ian and Justin had a weekly. That’s so lovely.”
Lindsey: He would be a very reassuring presence.
Catherine: Yeah, definitely. He is very reassuring.
Ian: I forgot about Justin here when I made that joke. Anyways, sorry, Justin.
Liz: I think I’ve been keeping up with family quite a bit on just different platforms. We use one called Marco Polo where we send video messages. My nephew is all over it. He sends the best shaky cam videos ever. And you’re like, “Cool, I see nothing, but I’m really excited you want to talk to me.”
I also squeeze in a little TV time just to watch my favorite shows, it’s something that keeps me sane. I always listen to the news in the morning just when I’m getting ready. Even if the girls are screaming, I just like to be able to know that stuff is going on and that I’m kind of keeping informed.
Simon: I’ve gone the other way. I’ve just turned it all off. I might be sticking my head in the ground, I don’t know, but it’s working well to keep me sane anyway. We’ve got the kids at home, we have to cook more meals. We’ve got all this other extra stuff. I’m like, let the world go on. I’m stuck in the house anyway.
Lindsey: I am honoring my weekends. So even though I have extra stuff to do, I’m going to pull from PTO [paid time off] before I try to make up any work on the weekends—just because disconnecting for two days is going to be important to keeping me sane. I’m also trying to keep up with running when I can.
Simon: My fitness regime is going out the window as well. Haven’t been able to get out of the house for that. So I actually did a bike ride last night at midnight till 1 AM because that’s the only time you’ve got now.
Catherine: I saw that in the SkyFit channel [our team’s Slack channel all about exercise]. I was like, “Simon, what are you up to over there?”
Liz: I’m also trying to take advantage of PTO. I took a day off this week just because I needed to clean things in my house that haven’t been cleaned in a while and it’s been a little while since I’ve fully disconnected. It was nice to know the company was fully supportive of us taking time off and wasn’t going to say, “Well you took a break so you’re in trouble.” Because I know some companies can get like that.
Catherine: Thank you all for doing this! Any final thoughts you want to share before we wrap up?
Ian: The thing I’m actually worried about is with everything going on, will the kids remember this as a fun time or not? And I’ve been going out in the yard with them twice a day and basically just running around until I’m tired and they’re not. Or letting them play on a video game a little too long and stuff like that. My kids don’t know that everything outside is supposed to be scary and that’s why I’m happy about the way things are going. That’s good enough for me. That’s all I need.
Lindsey: Again, don’t be too hard on yourselves. We gave up trying to potty train our daughter. It was not going well anyway. It was going very badly. And so we were like, “Why are we pushing this right now? We don’t need this. We have enough to do. It’ll happen. Plus we [still] have a giant box of diapers.” And that’s all okay. This is not the time to change everything about how you parent and try to be perfect. It’s not going to work. So just be easy on yourself as a parent and as an employee through all of this.
We kept the conversation to a smaller group—we figured all the parents across the team are busy enough and didn’t need more added to their plates—but we did ask the other parents to share their wisdom if they had a moment. Here’s what they had to say…
Alex Chan (Frontend engineer from Alberta, Canada. Kids: ages 11, 9, 4)
- Pick up a new hobby—with your kids. Find an interest that you always wanted to do but never had the time that aligns with something the kids can learn too. I’ve always wanted to improve my drawing skills, and practicing cute cartoon characters has been fun for the kids. There’s lots of great free and paid online content you can watch [to learn]. Just be sure to pause to give the kids a chance to catch up, since sometimes the teachers assume the entire audience is made up of adults.
- Educate through games. Hourofcode.com has a lot of resources to get kids learning to code. They learn coding by playing games, so it’s a win-win.
- Stay social with online board games. Play online live games like charades or Pictionary with friends and family.
Artan Sinani (Rails engineer from Ourense, Spain. Kid: age 13)
- Find creative offline outdoor activities. My son plays a lot of video games with his friends online. On one hand, this is a good coping mechanism for him in the new circumstances. On the other side, it frustrates us as parents, as it can go longer than we’d like. One way to engage him in other activities is growing a vegetable patch together. I dug it up, he sowed the seeds and planted the little plants, and now he’s responsible for watering them.
- And offline indoor activities as well. As for indoor activities, my wife engages him in cooking. He likes to make pancakes, especially after he discovered the classic hand crank style egg beater.
Tamara Zuk (Customer support specialist from Ontario, Canada. Kid: age 3)
- Don’t feel guilty. I’m a single mom to a three-year-old boy and I have been finding it challenging to focus on work and keep up with an energetic kid at the same time. My main advice would be: don’t feel guilty! It’s okay if the kids are using screens longer than they usually would. It’s also okay if they don’t have gourmet home cooked meals for a little while and you have to resort to more pre-packaged or frozen foods. This is especially important for single parents to keep in mind, as we often try to overcompensate—and we can easily burn out during this trying time.
- Find ways to burn off energy indoors. To help my son get his energy out while staying safely inside, I ordered a small indoor trampoline which has been a big hit! We also have a climbing triangle (also called a “pikler triangle”) that helps a lot with gross motor play indoors. I would highly recommend one for anyone who has kids under five.
- Make screen time active. The trampoline has quickly found its way into our new routine. At the start of my work day, I put one some educational TV (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the current favorite) and let my son jump on the trampoline while he watches the TV. This gives me a fair amount of quiet time to focus and lets my son work off lots of the pent up energy.
- Shift your schedule as much as needed. Instead of starting work as soon as possible in the morning, I’ve shifted my schedule a bit and it seems to be reducing stress. I now spend one-on-one time with my son in the mornings and don’t start even thinking about work until around noon. I’ve found this is a lot better for both of us. My son is happy to start quiet, independent play after we’ve spent some time chatting and playing in the morning and I feel less guilty about asking him to quiet down or gently rejecting requests to play through the day.
Jonathan Pike (Rails engineer from Ontario, Canada. Kids: ages 5, 3)
- Schedule smart to make sure your kids don’t burn out on school. We already had a schedule for our kids, since we homeschooled before the pandemic. We have separate binders for their work, and they’re separated into morning and afternoon activities. This gives them a break so they never reach the point of going crazy doing school work. It also adds a rhythm to my own daily routine, letting me take care of their afternoon work while my wife takes care of the mornings.
- Get outside, even in bad weather. Since the weather where I live has yet to warm up (last week was -21 C [-6 F] for most of the week), we’ve been limited in the kinds of outdoor activities we’re able to do. But even with those limitations, we’ve been able to go for daily walks (while maintaining adequate social distance from anyone we pass), which has been nice for me and the kids. There’s nothing like feeling the sun on your face after being inside for most of the day.
- Rediscover your passions and introduce them to your kids. All the time indoors has led me back to practicing music (piano), and since I’m in that mindset, I try to get the kids in on it. We have started the Prodigies Music curriculum for our preschool kids, and it’s really cool to see them develop an appreciation for music.
Sam Greenspan (Content marketer from California. Kids: ages 4, 1)
- Build your day around a basic schedule. Before the whole family was locked down together, I’d take breaks or eat meals whenever I reached a natural break in my work. Now we’re sticking to a more regimented schedule to give the days better structure for our kids (and ourselves). We sit down for a family lunch at 11:30 AM. I take the kids and dogs for a walk at 2 PM. Then we have family dinner at 5:30 PM. That gives us a framework around which we can plan the rest of our day—and makes the days feel less like an intimidating blob of time we need to fill.
- Watch out for news quicksand. Don’t read the news during your breaks. I’ve always been pretty good about mentally shifting from breaks back into work mode—but that all went downhill once the outbreak began. Now it feels like there’s gigantic, often anxiety-inducing, news breaking every hour, and it’s a lot easier to get sucked into reading dozens of articles about the latest development. It’s bad for productivity and mental health. So sequester your news reading to before or after work. If possible, avoid it until after your kids are asleep so you can be fully there for them mentally.
- It’s okay if your kids interrupt a meeting. Everyone you’re working with understands the current challenges. If one of your kids wanders into the background of a video chat, don’t panic—your team will almost certainly understand. Just hit mute, address your child’s need du jour, then hop back into the chat. After all, this brave new world of video conferencing is leading to bosses accidentally turning themselves into anthropomorphic potatoes. Your kid’s quick cameo doesn’t compare to that.
Jared Burke (PHP engineer from Tennessee. Kids: ages 3, 1)
- Physical activity. Say it with me. Physical activity! Get them outside and get the energy out. On rainy days, we have a scavenger hunt around the house looking for cards with symbols on them, and each symbol corresponds to some physical activity—jumping jacks, burpees, silly dancing, etc. Works wonders for our three-year-old boy.
Jason Olinger (Engineering manager from Georgia. Kids: ages 3, 2, 2)
- Let your kids work next to you. We set up an extra desk next to mine where my three-year-old son practices writing or basic math. Him being able to see someone else working seems to motivate him to want to do the same. Want to go the extra mile and make your kids feel like a million bucks? Ask them for their opinion and take a minute to talk to them, even if on a surface level. There is no better way to learn than together. Yes, that is not a one way street. You’d be shocked what we can learn from the little ones in our lives; some unfiltered feedback from a three-year-old on a work conversation can be quite enlightening. Plus, if you treat them with the same respect you would another adult, they tend to behave that way.
- You also need some physical activity. Your kids have a ton of energy and get that energy out by running around the house. That’s a reminder that you too should get up and get in some physical activity. Try to make it a family affair. Who says your three-year-old can’t be your fitness coach!?
- Remember to communicate with your partner. This tip is for you if you have a significant other/partner handling most or all of the child duties right now. Remember that if you feel stressed or frustrated working from home with the kids around, your other half probably is 10 times as stressed. This is a great opportunity to work on communicating with one another and growing your relationship through transparency, open communication, and teamwork. We, as people, always operate better as members of a team—and working from home with kids is a perfect opportunity to improve how we operate with our partner.
- Cherish the time. We get limited time with our kids at each stage in their life. If you find yourself getting frustrated with the current situation, try to see working from home with kids as a blessing. You have this extra time to make memories, teach or be taught by them, and see all those wonderful firsts. Cherish this bonus family time. You may end up shocked how much a positive perspective will impact your perception of the moment.
- Bribe at will. If all else fails, don’t be above bribing the kids for that moment of sanity. We’ve all done it.