By Katie Chappell. I recently celebrated one year with the University of California – I’ve now worked for UC Irvine remotely and during a pandemic longer than I have on campus in normal circumstances. I am doing this while co-parenting 3 kids (now ages 8 months, 3 years, and 6 years old), managing a newly formed team, and working on totally shifted priorities from a home office.
Whew. Just saying that is overwhelming. I won’t sugarcoat it, it is. But I’m also surviving, managing occasionally to succeed at work, and helping to keep my family alive – and mostly thriving – despite our upended lives.
Each person has experienced challenges due to COVID-19 and its far-reaching impacts on our daily lives. We parents of small children have felt it acutely as a never-ending marathon, slathered in parent-guilt. We are trying to keep our kids occupied, learning and safe, while putting out work fires from our bedroom offices and using our few spare moments to wash yet another load of dishes (they’re never ending).
It is not easy. And unfortunately, many women are bearing the heavier burden of these home and childcare responsibilities and burning out. I’m lucky I have the support of an equal partner. My husband takes the lion’s share of the childcare, especially for our older two kids. Our homeschool station is set up downstairs and he gets some of his contract work in during morning screentime breaks and afternoon quiet time. (Thankfully, our youngest still takes two good naps every day.)
COVID has not only impacted the elusive work/life balance – it’s also dramatically changed my work itself and presented new ways to grow and develop. The projects I thought I’d be doing right now have been postponed indefinitely, and I’m being forced to think daily about how we can serve our students, faculty, and staff through the challenges of remote teaching, learning and working. My work has shifted to helping our community work anywhere – through digital processes, easy-to-find resources, and cultivation of a virtual work community.
I have found I can’t survive this trying time without systems, and I’ve begun to develop some for our current scenario, especially now it’s become more apparent that this is just our life for a while.
Manage Work More Closely
- When jumping in and out of tasks, meetings, and projects all day – and all with constant interruptions – I have learned to keep both status and to-do lists for each ball being juggled. This helps me focus and get back on track, it gives me a conversation starter when setting priorities with supervisors, and helps me set expectations, ask for resources, and show the value of my work. I use Trello’s free version, following a mind-map approach. Utilizing the lists feature, I create broad work categories, use cards to focus individual projects and priorities that fit in each category, and include checklists and due dates for day-to-day project management.
- I find I often get thrown off my work routine after interruptions. So I try to keep a list handy of urgent but not important tasks that are either quick to complete or fun. They provide an easy win to get me back on track and in work-mode again.
Find What Works for You
- If you can, be flexible with your working hours. Due to daytime distractions and my family’s unpredictable needs between 8 am and 5 pm, I plan that 2 to 3 nights a week I will work in the evening to stay caught up or have time for more focused tasks. My team knows I’m unavailable between 5 and 8 pm for family, and they also know that they may get emails from me in the late evenings, but that I never expect a reply.
- Make liberal use of virtual backgrounds. Working from a bedroom with small children means there is a pile of laundry behind me in video conferences, if I’m not careful. So virtual backgrounds are essential. I try to change mine weekly, and switch between a branded professional look for external meetings and a fun campus photo or maybe the Disneyland castle for chats within my department.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
- Lack of physical proximity has exacerbated communication gaps in our groups and department. With significantly fewer opportunities for spontaneous collaboration, it’s become more important to be proactive in communicating, both up and down the organizational structure. This not only helps folks know what your team’s projects and priorities are, but also ensures you are visible to leadership, which may help you advocate for resources. When in doubt, communicate! Speak up in meetings, share your work with others, and ask for information when you need it.
- It’s also important to keep in close touch with your supervisor and teams about what kinds of accommodations you might need during this time. Maintaining an open line of communication about your family’s needs, your schedule, and your limitations helps set colleagues’ expectations appropriately and means a little less guilt when attending to the kids. In addition, setting expectations with your family about when focus time is needed, or when it’s ok to interrupt.
When parenting small children while working from home, it can feel as though all boundaries between work and family have dissolved. We are almost always “on.” It requires a whole new level of flexibility (and plenty of coffee). But the most important part of adjusting to our current work from home lifestyle is to be kind to yourself when the juggle feels overwhelming. It will!
Take care of yourselves.