Reader question: How should I approach a shifting work-from-home schedule?

From time to time, I run reader questions on this blog. I’m also always looking for listener questions for the podcast! Today’s question comes from Harmony Smith,* who runs the blog Creating My Kaleidoscope. She has five children, including 6-month-old twins. Her husband cares for the children while Harmony works. She had been working as a “normal” attorney for years, but recently started a non-traditional attorney job that won’t require being in the office all the time. “The flexibility is great for spending more time with my family. However, I’m worried about being efficient with my time,” she writes. “Most of the tips I read about working from home advise making a schedule for your day. The issue is that every day is going to be different. I’m covering court appearances and doing some work from home. One day I might be in court all day, another I might be home all day, and many will involve a little bit of both.”

What this suggests is infinite possibilities. “Working from home gives me the opportunity to do a few chores here and there, or make dinner, maybe do some exercise, and/or pick up the kids from the bus stop.” Of course, she also needs to work full time hours too. “I’m thinking that the best way to handle this new job might be to take a weekly approach to scheduling blocks of time for work and other things, but any input is greatly appreciated.”

I think a weekly approach to time is great. But before we even get there, I think the first thing that needs to happen is that Harmony and her husband need to have a good discussion about what should be expected from each of them now that she’s working from home more often. Caring for baby twins all day is hard. I suspect one of the reasons Harmony took her new position is to be able to help out with such simple logistical things as letting her husband stay in the house with the twins while she takes the big kids to the bus stop, rather than him needing to bundle up two infants, a process that likely adds at least 10 minutes to the morning routine. But does this mean she needs to try to be there at bus stop time every day? Should she intentionally not schedule calls then? Should she be “available” if she’s not on a call, if one twin is melting down and the other is clearly hungry? Five children generate a ton of laundry. But now that she’s home, is she obligated to start taking that on?

All these questions are easier if the person caring for your children while you work from home is an employee. They are harder if the person is your partner. When Harmony worked in an office full-time, Mr. Smith’s job was keeping the children safe and happy during the day. Now she might see his job as keeping them safe and happy and out of her office while she’s working. While there might be some benefits to having another adult around more often, it will require a changing job description for both of them, and that can be really hard to adjust to.

So, a conversation is in order. But after that — to the schedule!

In general, I think planning one’s life in weeks helps to create the right balance between dealing with the big picture, and getting day-to-day stuff done. On Friday afternoon, she can look at the schedule for the week ahead. When are the scheduled court appearances? This can (and does) change depending on how the cases develop, but hopefully it is roughly fleshed out the week before. She can put in what David Allen calls the “hard landscape” of calls and meetings, and see when she’ll need to leave the house for such things, and when she has a block of time to work from home. Then she can write out her top professional priorities for the upcoming week, and break these down into steps. She can block these steps into the available spaces.

Then she can do her best to use her work-from-home flexibility to mitigate some of the family’s current pain points. I think this often comes down to adopting a rhythm for one’s work days, despite having (in theory) total flexibility. Most days, for instance, I stop what I’m doing at 8:28 a.m.** and get my three big kids rallied to the bus stop. Our nanny is certainly capable of doing this — and does, on any days I’m traveling — but I know from doing it myself some times that it is a total pain in the butt to deal with a baby as you’re making sure no one has forgotten some critical item that you will later receive a call from the office about. Lunch time might be another good break point. Harmony could eat with the twins or help with feeding them. As they get older, she might try to not schedule any calls during part of their nap 1-2 days a week so Mr. Smith could get out and get some kid-free fresh air. She would do the OK-if-I’m-interrupted stuff during this time (e.g. email), saving the focused stuff for time he covers. In my house, I can try to take phone calls at 4 p.m. but they are almost universally interrupted by some child screaming about something or other as he/she gets off the bus. So in general, I just accept that People Who Must Not Hear Kid Noises must be steered to other times of the day. I will wind up with a break in my schedule around 4 p.m., whether I want one or not, so better to just plan for it.

The other upside to adopting a rhythm for one’s days? It gives you a quitting time. If you work in an office, quitting time is relatively obvious: you leave. Not so if you’re working from home. One option is to actually make the bus’s arrival quitting time, and then do a really heavy split shift. If the babies are going down around 7 p.m., Harmony could certainly work another 60-90 minutes after that most nights, and cover the 4-5:30 p.m. hours that she would have been working in an office.

(Of course, on court days, this would have to be different).

As for housework, I don’t think working from home part of the time is a great reason to change whatever the family had been doing. From studying the time logs of people who work from home, I’ve come to suspect that housework can easily become a form of procrastination. It feels very productive: look at me, I folded the laundry! But if you’re folding the laundry because you didn’t want to call that difficult client, well, that is not a big win.

With that, I’d also put in a plug for Harmony not creating huge new expectations for what she’ll be able to do with her kids, or on the personal front, at least for the first 6-12 months. Yes, she will probably spend some more time with her kids, just by virtue of being around more often. But working from home doesn’t mean you can commit to being at all the class parties. It doesn’t mean she’ll be able to start training for a marathon if that didn’t fit into her life as an in-office employee either. She is still the primary (basically sole) breadwinner for a family of seven. The work needs to get done.

When life is in transition, I find that time logs can be really helpful. Harmony likely has to track her work time to bill appropriately anyway. Tracking all her time could allow her to see when there is space for family or personal extras, and when there isn’t any space, so she shouldn’t create an expectation that could create bad feelings — for herself, or someone else.

What advice do you have for Harmony?

*Not her real name. This is the name she uses on her blog.

** It was 8:28, but this morning, my 10-year-old informed me that the bus driver had decided to move the route up by 5 minutes. Fortunately, we were out in time, but just barely! My whole morning has just been changed!

8 thoughts on “Reader question: How should I approach a shifting work-from-home schedule?

  1. When my husband started working from home (with me) we instituted weekly planning meetings. We discuss everybody’s schedules, family life first, meal plan, then work, and put it all on a weekly paper calendar that goes on the refrigerator.
    Since he was working long hours outside of the house, he didn’t know about who went where on which day– and so didn’t have the information needed to schedule work optimally. Laying out expectations for the week has been supremely helpful for our marriage and work.

  2. What a great question, and great advice! Two other things that may help are 1. making sure to keep letting her husband do things however he does things (I’m sure she will, as he’s probably done just fine all along, but sometimes being around means you suddenly *know* how things have been handled, and it’s different from the way you’d handle it, and, well, it can be hard to not step in) and 2. come up with templates.
    It’s just an extension of a daily rhythm — she could have her court day schedule, and her home day schedule, and her lots-of-calls-and-meetings day schedule. I find making these kinds of plans in 2-hour blocks makes them the most flexible, especially when a day gets split between two different focuses.

  3. I loved the advice you gave and thought I could pass on some thoughts being the mom of twins myself ( mine are 2.5 years now ).
    1) Earplugs or headphones. Its hard to continue to work if you are mentally being pulled back to what’s going on upstairs because of the noise. And it always sounds worse when you don’t have the visual cues to understand what you are hearing. If her husband had a way to get her attention if really needed, decided on ahead of time, then she could ignore anything else without worry.
    2) Childcare. A babysitter that comes from time to time. That could be for a date night, lunch, coffee or the like? To give her husband a break from childcare at times during the day? Or her some space at the end of the work day without her feeling like she “has” to get right upstairs and help? Or even to run some of the older ones around without bringing the younger siblings.
    3)Back up help. Having someone to call on for one off situations. (the family gets the flu on the same day as a big work commitment, someone has to go to emergency for stitches, etc ) similar to a backup care arrangement that you might have if out of the house for work. Or alternatively a work back up person, that can be counted on to cover in a pinch if she is needed at home.

  4. Another suggestion – potentially schedule a morning or afternoon to work elsewhere on stuff that needs more concentration – library, coffee shop, drop-in coworking space, etc.

    Our situation was a bit different – both hubby and I worked from home at the same time, but our kids were at preschool/K all day. We each had separate offices with doors and rarely just “dropped in” to chat with the other parent, to avoid distractions and work as much as we could before the kids needed to be picked up. We swapped kid dropoffs and pickup so one of us could work until dinnertime each day and one could start earlier and not have to deal with getting the girls ready/fed in the morning. But we have only 2 kids 🙂

  5. Thank you for all of this helpful advice!!

    Also – good idea to do another time tracking now that schedules have changed.

    It will likely take us a little while to figure out the perfect system for us. For now, I tend to be most focused in the morning, from about nine to noon, so that is my do-not-disturb time. Then, I can take a little break for lunch and fill in the afternoon/evening with other chunks of time for working. I like the idea of having set non-working hours too.

    My mother wants to come over and help, but usually just ends up trying to visit. And Mr. Smith doesn’t like trying to take care of kids together with her. That’s something we can think about too.

    1. @Harmony- thanks for posing the question! I’m always in favor of time tracking. And I find that 9-noon tends to be my focused time too. The kids are all out of the house during then, and I have tried to be disciplined enough to focus on what most needs to get done during that time. I just got a lunch break with my 2-year-old, which was nice.

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