How to Navigate New Coworkers: Roommates, Family, Kids and Pets
Carolyn Swope, MPH and Carolina Campanella, PhD | June 23, 2020
Meet Your New Office Mates
As much of the workforce continues to stay home, we face an ongoing uncertainty about when offices will reopen or when virtual classes will end and kids will return to school. Working from home already presents a unique set of challenges to productivity (as discussed in our previous article). But navigating working from home while sharing space with other household members — whether roommates, partners, kids, or even pets — adds another layer of complexity. We’re all struggling with new boundaries, from juggling conference calls while feeding the kids or wrapping up an important document while a roommate or partner is on a work call in the same room, to keeping a cat from photo-bombing an important video call!
Read on for tips on how to share your workspace with other household members while being mutually supportive of everything that needs to get done for the day.
Use Your Environment
Ideally, each workstation should be separate from other people in the household. This helps reduce distractions from other people’s work calls or interruptions from other household members. If it is not possible to have a fully separate work area in your home, look for a spot with less “traffic flow” and potential for interruptions.
Designating spaces specifically for working — and working in that space consistently rather than shifting throughout the week — can be especially helpful in households with younger children. Maintaining a consistent, designated work zone helps kids understand that when their parent is in that space, they shouldn’t be interrupted. Visual cues are especially helpful to reinforce this message for kids. For example: closing the door, hanging an object on the doorknob, or putting up a sign. Kids, especially younger children, will be more likely to respect a sign they helped create. So get out your markers and cardboard and put your kids to work!
If you aren’t able to find a quiet place to work at home, try using noise cancelling headphones to drown out distractions. You can use these headphones just to enjoy the silence, or play the music you love to keep yourself motivated as you perform more mundane and repetitive tasks. However, lyrics might distract you from performing more cognitively demanding tasks — particularly if you’re an introvert — so try building out a list of instrumental tracks for tasks that require you to read or write complex documents.
Keep a Schedule
Our previous article explored how setting up a schedule for the day can support your productivity. But when there are other people involved in your work day, it’s also important to think about how to fit your schedules together. Having coordinated schedules across all the members of your household (including pets!) can help make sure that everyone accomplishes what they need to during the day.
Working straight through a regular work day can be particularly challenging when there are kids in the house. In this case, one of the first things to consider is how to arrange your day to balance work with childcare. First, identify the most important tasks of your day, where you’ll need full concentration — whether during conference calls or focused writing projects. Then, consider the best blocks of time to slot them into your day. If you’re sharing child rearing responsibilities with another household member, try coordinating schedules to ensure that each of you has time to focus on important tasks while the other is “on duty” for childcare and other household concerns, and vice versa. And if you’re taking care of the kids by yourself, schedule activities that don’t require as much supervision during your blocked-off times. For infants and toddlers this might involve using a bouncy chair or swings, while for older kids this might involve classwork, reading, educational games, puzzles, or toys like LEGO.
Given the unusual predicament of these times, don’t stress out if you have to resort to more screen time than you normally would. Try picking programs that you trust and games that enable your kids to interact with their friends. Reserving screen time for when you’re intensively working can also help kids associate this time as something to look forward to rather than feeling frustrated by your absence. Remember to avoid screen time in the evenings, though, as it can significantly interfere with kids’ sleep patterns – and this won’t serve you well either!
Nap times and sleep schedules are another built-in mechanism to allow you time to focus. Most younger kids (infants to preschoolers) will already be in the habit of napping at daycare, preschool, or at home. As an added bonus, napping helps support learning and cognitive development in young children. In terms of bedtime, younger kids need to go to sleep early. This gives you a good block of time to work while they get the sleep they need. On the other hand, older kids like to sleep in later, which will allow you to work in the morning while allowing them to get in extra sleep.
And last but not least: our furry friends! Pets respond to structure just as well as the rest of us, and will catch on to the rhythm of regular walk times and eating schedules so you can focus on work for the rest of the time. For more energetic pets, save high-energy, favorite toys to distract them during your most focused work times.
However, as discussed in our previous article, Sleep to Protect Immune Health, having some time to recharge from work is important for getting good sleep, as well as preventing work-related stress and maintaining your energy levels. So don’t let your shifting schedule eat up all the hours in your day. Try structuring a beginning and end to your workday through routines like mealtimes, exercising or meditating. And remember to build in time to relax, read, or stay grounded through social support from friends and family.
Communication is Key
Synchronizing the varying needs of multiple household members is always tough, and even more challenging at a time like this. Smooth navigation depends on various forms of communication. Start with getting everyone on the same page about the schedule for the day. If you have kids, create a calendar and position it where everyone can see it – like the fridge. Invite your kids to help design the calendar using color or other cues so that the understand signifiers like who’s “on duty” for childcare at any given time, or what a ‘do not interrupt’ block looks like. If there are times when it’s especially important that you avoid interruptions. Be clear and upfront so that your kids feel like they’re part of the process and understand the parameters of your time spent away from them.
Another important element is communication with other household members throughout the day. While working from home allows us to spend more time with family and feel more connected to the household, it’s important to avoid distractions and interruptions that might lead to procrastination. Keeping separate work areas helps create this space. Try to avoid ad-hoc chatting with adult members of your household and choose go-to methods of communication for pressing matters, for example texting, shared virtual platforms or a bulletin board. On the other hand, sharing lunch or snack breaks is a great way to stay connected while maintaining healthy boundaries. This also helps reinforce open communication blocks for kids, and make them more comfortable with not interrupting you during those times when you really need to focus.
Finally, communication with colleagues is essential. If you’re working with kids at home, let your manager and relevant colleagues know about any variations in your schedule. When you’re on a call or video conference, it can be helpful to let your team know that while you have set clear boundaries with your kids, unplanned interruptions are always possible — this helps promote understanding and mitigate frustration for the whole team.
We hope that these tips help you navigate your days during these unprecedented times. For more tips on how to be productive while working from home, check out our last article.
Edited by Radhika Singh