By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University
Video conference calls have taken over when it comes to remote work and meeting in the virtual environment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the common phrases, “Sorry, I was muted!”, “Can you hear me?” or “Who just joined?”
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But even more telling is what happens around the person talking: the dog barks, people walk around in the background and kids want their parent’s attention. While these minor disruptions commonly occur during a call, they also provide an opportunity to see the complexities and challenges of working from home, especially when you’re a parent.
Remote Work and the Parenting Challenge during COVID-19
As a single mother of two, I have first-hand knowledge that working from home presents many challenges. While remote work means a departure from long commutes, business attire, eating unhealthy lunches, wasting time on needless office conversations, and a pause from culturally irrelevant daily office rituals, there are equally challenging issues to working from home.
For working adults with multi-generations in the same home, the ‘sandwich generation’ now feels the additional strain for caring for both parents and kids during this pandemic. For some two-parent households, childcare has taken on a whole new meaning, especially if one parent works outside the home.
Parenting is a 24/7 job, and remote work only amplifies that statistic. Multitasking is the new norm, as parents juggle the daily stress of meeting deadlines, bandwidth issues with multiple family members taxing the internet, participating in video chats, and the sporadic “Got a minute?” impromptu phone calls. While these phone calls sound simple, they usually last way more than a minute and result in additional work-related tasks, which further contributes to a never-ending list of responsibilities.
Making Coworkers Realize the Difficulty of Simultaneous Parenting and Remote Work
I dialed into a video conference call early one day. While I chatted to a coworker who has two small kids, I asked what at the time seemed like a harmless question: “How are you doing?”
Her expression changed. She leaned into the camera and said, “I now know why some species eat their young — they didn’t have daycare for three months.”
As a fellow parent, I burst into laughter and even felt a tear well up in my right eye. But a second coworker with adult kids living outside the home interjected, “It can’t be THAT bad, right?”
Parenting can be polarizing and communal at the same time. There’s a secret bond among parents, that in most cases, is not evident to others.
Over the past few weeks I’ve shared these ‘secret society conversations’ with fellow parents. Each had a gruesome parenting story to share when they were prompted:
- One parent expressed guilt that his 18-month-old daughter stayed in her high chair for three straight hours while he presented during an extended meeting.
- Another parent remarked how she had to mute herself on the phone three times in 10 minutes to ‘yell’ at her kids and verbally break up a tussle among siblings.
- A parent of 12-year-old twins said he sends his boys out in the yard to play whenever he has a call where he needs to speak. This technique failed epically when there was a downburst of rain (not forecasted) that resulted in two soaked kids running into the house, screaming at the top of their lungs.
- One parent expressed irritation that a late-running, end-of-the-day conference call resulted in burnt lasagna and hungry, insistent children.
- Another parent showed me the picture of a new, impromptu mural on the family room wall his little one created when his back was turned, and one crayon was missing from the box.
- A dad remarked how he had to use the chat function for a meeting. Multiple people in the home slowed down the internet/bandwidth speed, so all of his real-time comments looked too choppy for coworkers to comprehend.
- Another coworker started the call by whispering, “I’m hiding from my kids!” The story was verified when he turned his camera to show he was sitting in his car in his garage.
I asked a friend what she thought about the idea of virtual happy hours. She replied, “What’s happy about it? I’m juggling finalizing tasks, preparing dinner, keeping the kids entertained and scraping leftover goo off the wall from a slime experiment gone wrong. My video is off because my house looks like a disaster zone.
“Do I have time to listen to my insensitive boss talk about the latest book she read during her ‘free time’ while sipping on a glass of merlot on her deck? That’s not my reality and nothing about it makes me happy.”
Working from Home and Staying Productive in 2020
According to USA Today, studies have shown that productivity has increased in the virtual world, especially since so many companies like Apple, Twitter and Facebook have announced plans for permanent remote working. USA Today also quotes the executive of a staffing company:
“Many companies are learning that their workers are just as or even more productive working from home,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
However, this switch to full-time remote work complicates productivity for parents who relied on daycare, before- and after-school care, and community centers pre COVID-19. Those methods of childcare bridged the gap for parents who worked more than the standard six-hour school day. Many middle-class families cannot afford in-home daycare or have the capacity to house a full-time nanny/au pair.
Brian Nordli outlined 10 tips to remaining productive while working from home:
- Join an office social group.
- Master written communication and communicate as much as possible.
- Use tools like Loom or delay emails to facilitate asynchronous communication.
- Establish a daily routine.
- Mimic a commute ritual.
- Establish a dedicated workspace.
- Set a “Focus Day” or try the “Pomodoro Technique” to manage your workload.
- Keep a journal to identify stress and work patterns.
- Don’t be afraid to take a mental health day.
Several of these tips, while they are positive, did not reference multitasking. Not a single tip referenced parenting. The last one comes close, but how do you take a mental health day off from parenting?
Is the difficulty of managing remote work and parenting hard, because the secret society of parenting has not been expressed to management? Is there a platform for parents to express the challenges of working from home without fear of retaliation? And would parents want to participate?
Nordli’s article highlights the need for coworkers to see your face to see in real time. He states the need to establish a routine schedule with breaks for lunch and a defined end of day.
But the remote work environment Nordli envisions is counter to my experiences with parents over the past months. While you see most coworkers at the beginning of the call, most cameras switch off after a few minutes and coworkers reappear only when they provide a comment.
In addition, I’ve received emails at all times of the day and evening. To me, that is an indication that the close-of-business 5 p.m. office norm is no longer applicable in the work from home environment.
Dordli’s article encourages using emojis as a great way to highlight your temperament. I’ve yet to find an emoji to express the many challenges of parenting in the remote work environment. If you find it, let me know.
About the Author
Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.
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