Health and Healthcare Systems

Coronavirus: 5 ways to work from home with your kids (and stay sane)

Chrissy Brackett and grandson Caidence Miller use a home-learning system in use due to the coronavirus in Washington state, US.

Chrissy Brackett and grandson Caidence Miller use a home-learning system in use due to the coronavirus in Washington state, US. Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

Stewart Friedman
Practice Professor of Management, University of Pennsylvania
Alyssa Westring
Associate Professor of Management, Driehaus College of Business, DePaul University
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Education, Gender and Work

• Managing the closures of schools, offices and care facilities can be overwhelming for working parents.

• Flexibility is key during this challenging period; perfectionism the enemy.

• Self-isolation need not lead to emotional disconnection.

Across the world, schools and daycare centres are rapidly closing their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. While this is incredibly important for the health of our communities, working parents face complex decisions about how to manage work and family demands.

Here are some tips on how to find perspective and a sense of balance as you prepare to work and parent within the confines of coronavirus self-isolation.

1. Talk about values

These unprecedented times provide an opportunity to strengthen and express our values as individuals and as families. At both work and at home, we can engage in deeper conversation about what matters most to us. At work, this may mean speaking up to connect your organization’s values to decisions about social distancing or homeworking practices. You may use this as an opportunity to be more emotionally honest – to talk about an immune-compromised member of your family, or the shifting childcare demands you are facing.

By thinking and talking about these in terms of values (rather than just how the organization needs to accommodate you), you are growing as a leader. In the same way, you can lead your family in conversations about values, as well. You can invite your children to help you identify those values that are important to your family and how this provides you with an opportunity to express them. For example, if your family values helping those in need, talk about how maintaining a physical distance from people allows you to live that.

And this is an opportunity to show your children how values translate into actions. They may have some good ideas, too. For example, [author] Alyssa’s kids came up with the idea of offering to clean the cages of the class pets who were staying at the house of a friend.

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2. Get on the same page

We are all making decisions incredibly quickly in order to adjust to this new reality. To do so, we rely on our assumptions about what others want and need from us. And we probably haven’t fully communicated what we want and need from them. Given that we’ve never found ourselves in this situation before, it’s quite possible that many of these assumptions are misguided. Even in the best of times, the parents we work with often come to realize that their bosses, colleagues, friends and family often want very different things from them than what they thought.

So now is the time for clarification. For example, you might say to your manager, “Here is what I think you expect of me over the next two weeks. Do I have it right? What am I missing?” Then flip the script. Explain what you really need from them and answer their questions. The same goes for your parenting partner – don’t just operate based on old habits for who does what, when and where. Question your assumptions to get on the same page.

3. Let go of perfectionism

If you are like many of the parents we work with, you probably hold yourself to high standards of performance at work and in the home. Consider this an opportunity to practise loosening your grip on these expectations. Maybe your children get a little more screen time than usual. Maybe your house is a mess behind you on camera during a video call. Maybe you rethink your expectations of the people who report to you. Look at this as a chance to re-evaluate what really matters and to let go of over-performing in less important areas. And perhaps this prioritization will be a stick you can bring with you once things return to normal.

4. Stay connected

Social distancing does not require us to fully abandon our sense of community and support. For working parents who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home or can financially afford to take time from work, we have an opportunity to help those who may not have such opportunities (such as picking up groceries for an elderly neighbour).

Moreover, finding ways to maintain and strengthen our community bonds is a tool for feeling less isolated. So consider ways that it’s still possible to feel connected. For example, many religious organizations are offering streaming opportunities for community prayer. Set up a secure video-gaming community where your child can play with their friends without worrying about interacting with strangers. Connect with friends and stay active by setting a time when you all do the same workout or yoga video and then texting about it afterwards (bonus points for including the kids in the yoga too). Just because you’re physically apart, doesn’t mean that you have to be emotionally disconnected.

5. Innovate and iterate

Of course these are challenging times. But they also provide an opportunity to be creative about how we meet the varied demands from the different parts of our lives. Our old habits and routines may not work in this situation. So, try something different. Explore shifting when, where and how you work – even within the confines of your own home. Invite your children to come up with creative solutions for keeping themselves occupied.

The key here is not only being willing to try new things, but being willing to iterate when they don’t work as well as you expected. Let go of the idea of finding the “right” solution for managing this crisis. Expect that you’ll need to be required to innovate, test and iterate over and over throughout the next few weeks.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Our research has shown that working parents benefit greatly from thinking and acting like leaders. COVID-19 presents the leadership challenge of our lives as parents. How we respond will have a powerful impact on our children and our communities.

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