This article is a part of The Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research exploring what remote work looks like today as homes have become offices and classrooms to uncover what actions can improve the precarious work and life balance for caregivers working from home.
As the events of 2020 unfolded, we asked ourselves how to use our core skills as a research team to make positive contributions to a world in flux. We decided, among other things, to tackle the thorny challenge of re-inventing remote work to make it more doable for parents.
Helping parents is critical. We see it as a moral imperative to ensure our caregiving employees have a high quality of life and great experience at work. Not only is this the right thing to do, but their success can also spill over into the lives of their loved ones, nurturing the next generation.
"Parenting is hard. Working and parenting is hard. If we could find a way to lift that burden and allow parents to earn a living from home AND parent their kids I really think it could open up so many doors." - Mom, Medical bill processor, 2 kids
It’s all too easy to see everything that’s not working about the current situation. Every time we look at social media, we’re confronted with more news about the stresses and frustrations families are facing since homes became unexpected hubs of remote work, school, and family life. There’s plenty of information about all the ways in which the current situation is broken.
There’s less guidance out there on what might be better. We decided to seek out those families for whom the current situation, COVID and all, is actually already working beautifully. Our goal was to shine a light on the unsung stories of parents who have already turned their homes into tiny, peaceful islands of good productive work and great quality learning.
Our Research Approach
To do this, we designed a study to learn from families who have been working full-time from home sustainably and productively for years — while also homeschooling their kids. The eighteen families we found came from all over the country, worked in roles from customer service to executive leadership, represented a mix of racial identities, and had kids of all ages, from infants to teenagers, with most between five and twelve. All of them worked full-time from home, and most of their partners did too. And, all of them expressed a strongly positive attitude toward their current situation, with positive answers to attitudinal questions about the sustainability of their setup, the quality of their work they did from home, their child’s engagement in learning, and their family’s intent to continue.
What we learned changed our perspective about the design of the remote workplace and home-based learning. We saw conventional work and school practices with fresh eyes and discovered the many alternatives at our fingertips— in mindset as well as practice. We identified ways these activities can interweave and how homes can be lifted to a new level of harmony — enabling knowledge workers to do their best work side-by-side with learning young ones.
Portrait of an “agile family”
What struck us in talking to families that have been successfully thriving for years — while productively managing full time work by both partners and homeschooling their kids — is how much they had in common with agile teams.
Even without an explicit manifesto, their approach and practices drew from agile principles: an emphasis on self-motivation, on embracing change, on reflectiveness about processes. They had simplified work and learning, and found ways to make their activities sustainable. Most important of all, these homes were a hub of continual experimentation.
We identified several commonalities in the following areas:
Learn about agile families' mindsets towards making things work at home, hear stories and quotes from participants, and learn how companies can support.
Take action on supporting a new mindset.
Hear how families created physical environments that best supported both work and school.
Take action on helping build successful environments for your teams.
Many participants had developed sophisticated ways to support their kids during the day. Read about how creating proactive systems for dealing with the unexpected was critical to success.
Take action on supporting these practices: How employers can participate.
"A lot of people would say, ‘I tried to put together a schedule, it lasted almost two days, and then it fell apart.’ And I would say, ‘OK - what happened from there?’ And they would say, ‘What do you mean? It just fell apart, it’s been chaos ever since.’ Aw, come on...Could you imagine, if, on the first carving of your business, if you said, ‘this didn’t go well, I’m done’?! You gotta revise, revise, revise...And take that pressure of perfection off yourself and realize, hey, everyone’s revising, and then commit to revising[…] Is it easy? Does it come on the first [try]? No…. Revise, revise, revise. Edit. Stay with the things that are working. Things will start to become more clear. Never perfect, but more clear." - Jim and Jamie Sheils, podcast interview, Honey I’m Homeschooling the Kids
Agile families share a certain mindset toward making things work at home:
- They continually experiment.
These parent-employees were continually iterating and seeing new ways to improve their schedule, their workspaces, and their communication. For even the most seasoned families, successfully transitioning from conventional school had taken months or years of experimenting, and they were continuing to tinker and fine-tune all the time.
"I believe that setting up an organized place for work, learning and day to day living is very important. It is not easy and takes a lot of trial and error. We have had multiple iterations of buying new furniture, then either returning, reselling or donating it, because it was not meeting our needs." - Dad, IT consultant, 2 kids
"Our first year was a disaster. Not even kidding. It was rough. We were fresh from public school and it’s HARD to break that mindset. To get away from that ‘schedule’. I made the big mistake of trying to ‘recreate’ a school day. Bad idea. Do not recommend it. We muddled through and somehow managed to salvage it enough that we carried on a second year. It went better. Still not great but definitely better. By our third year we were finding our groove." - Mom, Medical bill processor, 2 kids
- They find parallels between parents’ and children’s work.
These families had discovered and leveraged all the things work and learning have in common, such as similar tools, spaces, moods, and skills.
"The best part is that it’s almost like my twins have their own job. They are accountable for their own work, have a calendar tracking all tasks and deliverables and are able to create solutions better on their own. They have become very responsible and grown-up." - Single Mom, Healthcare VP, twins
- They empower kids.
The parents we spoke with were inclusive, seeking out and leveraging their kids’ ideas and opinions in designing family life and learning activities.
"I let [my kids] help pick their schedule and the books they find interesting. I honestly make it about them, I can teach around any lifestyle or choices. For electives, I let them pick what they want to learn also. This helps the kids feel a sense of responsibility, they have a voice, they are heard and I have noticed since I let them help with lesson plans we have had less complaints about being bored." - Mom, SMB Content writer, 2 kids
"Near the end of the year we asked William what his preference between his charter school and homeschool would be. He enthusiastically chose homeschool but said he would miss his friends and P.E. class." - Dad, Senior Security Consultant, 2 kids
- They dedicate time to strategize and plan.
Most families we spoke to allocated 5-8 hours per week to work strategically on their child’s learning program, including research, planning, and family meetings.
"I personally dedicate about 5 hours a week in planning the schedules for both home learning and work. I also review their work before they submit to ensure they are grasping concepts. I am the only parent involved in this aspect of their education. I break up the planning aspect throughout the week in chunks of about 15 minutes in the morning, 15 in the afternoon, 15 in the evening and another 15 minutes after they go to bed. It is more manageable to me in small increments." - Mom, Healthcare purchasing director, 3 kids
"If we find that their educational needs aren’t being met, we sit down and have a family meeting. We discuss what’s missing, what’s needed, and where do we go from there. This usually takes about two hours at max." - Mom, Customer Success and Refund Specialist, 3 kids
- They question everything.
The parents we spoke with were highly empowered. They scrutinized conventional wisdom even when it came from a respected institution or family member. For instance, almost all of the families we spoke with had concluded that despite schools’ conventional setup, most of their child’s formal academic learning only took around 3 hours/day. They questioned distinctions between formal and informal learning, seeing opportunities for learning everywhere — while shopping, in meal preparation, helping maintain the household, outdoors, and in playful, creative activities.
"With homeschooling, the school day is way more condensed than in a traditional school, so they can be working way ahead of their peers and still only do school for 3 or 4 hours a day. They also are used to educational things being fun...I give them lots of ideas and opportunities and just leave it open and don’t force it on them, and they choose that because it seems fun and doesn’t seem at all like school to them." - Mom, Director of User Experience, 3 kids
"Preparing his own lunch has helped [my son] develop basic cooking skills and to think about balancing nutrition and taste." - Father, Partner, data analytics firm, 2 kids
- They focus on each one’s individual needs.
These parents didn’t find value in standardization. Instead, they adapted based on their family’s values and their kids' unique needs and interests. Some had entirely different schooling plans for each child as a result.
"We went through several curriculum choices before coming to the conclusion that there is no one size fits all. Our best option has been to pick and choose and put our own together. There are plenty of boxed options that are open-and-go and they are wonderful, especially for new homeschoolers. But as we progressed it made more sense to build our own." - Mom, Medical bill processor, 2 kids
- They embrace imperfection.
These parents had adopted a practical, gentle approach with themselves, making their own needs a consistent priority and forgiving themselves when they didn’t measure up to their own standards. It is captured well by this mother, writing an imaginary letter to a parent considering homeschooling:
"The final thing you should do is give yourself and your children some grace. IT WILL NOT BE PERFECT AND THAT IS OKAY!!!! If you need to write that on your mirror or on your fridge so that you can see it everyday then please do it." - Mom, customer service, 3 kids
Take action on supporting a new mindset:
- Because of COVID, families are trying to do something that has a steep learning curve (blending WFH with home-based learning.) Employers can curate and provide resources, including ERGs with experts and peer-support to soften this transition. Learn more about what companies can do to support caregivers.
- Parents need 5-8 hours to successfully meld home-based learning with other priorities. Consider a flexible hours program to help them find this time.
The families we spoke with were as intentional about the design and set-up of their homes. They experimented and worked creatively to be sure the environment and cues were just right for themselves and their kids, optimizing their ability focus. This included:
- Intentional individual workspaces.
Many families had set up and continued to iterate on comfortable, well-lit, quiet, and dedicated workspaces for each child. Older kids had been involved in selecting furniture and equipment, like lamps, standing desks, monitors, and headsets. Parents’ workspaces worked best when there was a semi-permeable boundary, such as a glass door. Many families also had outdoor patios that were used for learning, and kids rotated between different spaces throughout the day to help them shift gears and maintain comfort and focus.
- Well-chosen tech tools.
Technology played a critical role in parents’ balancing their roles, by helping set and reinforce boundaries between work and home.
- Kids used text messages, email, shared calendars, and (for older kids) Google docs to stay in touch with their parent throughout the day, asking less urgent questions, making requests, and sharing work.
- Several parents saw noise-canceling wireless headphones as an invaluable tool. It allowed them to maintain a connection with the office by keeping tabs on time-sensitive notifications, while freeing them to walk around the home.
- Technology also helped families power down for bedtime with specific rituals and routines. Homeschooling families prioritized bedtime since lack of sleep meant the next day was problematic for everyone. One family had found a way to avoid screen use in the bedroom by using smart speakers with audiobooks. Another set up his smart home to automatically dim lights and help everyone get in the mood for bed.
- Sensory environment.
Many parents designed the home environment to please the senses. They built thoughtful systems that allowed even younger kids to get themselves snacks from the kitchen when they needed them. Several also emphasized the importance of natural lighting, accessible outdoors spaces, and even aromatherapy to create a positive mood.
Take action on building successful environments:
- Know that the comfort of your employees’ children directly affects your employees’ focus, motivation, and productivity.
- As a company, ensure any technology stipends or benefits are flexible and generous enough to accommodate the whole family’s needs.
Nobody characterized working from home with kids in the mix as easy, and everyone saw their home life as a continuous work-in-progress with plenty of room for improvement. They also emphasized the uniqueness of each family, each child, and each situation. That said, some patterns emerged across families that helped maximize productive, harmonious time at home.
There are two kinds of challenges parents face: interruptions from their children, and unexpected situations at work. Creating proactive systems for dealing with the unexpected was critical to success. Many of our participants had built sophisticated systems for dealing with interruptions from kids, including:
- Unconventional time blocks for asynchronous work.
When needing to do deep work or, as one parent called it “hard thinking” work, parents didn’t only rely on the 9-5. When their jobs and employers allowed for it, they instead optimized for focused work time while kids were asleep, usually including an early pre-dawn chunk or a late night chunk.
- Morning family meetings at breakfast.
Parents leveraged breakfast to discuss goals, plans, and intentions for the day, reference the family schedule, and remind their kids about important things coming up. This was an important time for setting expectations about the parents’ availability that day.
- Undistracted daytime time block with the child.
Most parents dedicated a solid chunk of time, usually midmorning, completely focused on the child and their learning. This relationship-building time seemed to fill the child’s tank with loving attention, set them on a good track for a learning-rich day, and free the parent to direct their attention elsewhere.
"To minimize problems, I have set aside an hour and a half every day when I have dedicated time with my son. This is usually when we do math together (math usually requires a lot of help on my end), discuss projects and classes we have for the day and discuss things he has read the day before to see if he needs some help. Having this time helps having multiple small questions that pop up. We also try to eat lunch together, though not always possible. During that time I do not answer my phone unless an emergency." - Mom, SMB travel agent, 2 kids
- Visual signals of unavailability.
Almost every parent had occasional important meetings during which they couldn’t be disturbed by their kids. Some participants set clear expectations around these through:
- Writing them on a family visual schedule (whiteboard) or shared calendar
- Reminding the family about the event at breakfast
- Closing their door and wearing headphones
- Designing for kids’ empowerment.
Parents had taken note of the nature of kid interruptions that were likely during the day. Kids often had needs related to being hungry, making a mess or breaking something, having arguments with their siblings, being bored, needing help on a project, not being able to find something, or dealing with tech problems.
Many of our participants had worked out proactive ways to enable their children to address these themselves. For instance, they made DIY cleaning supplies available and showed them how to clean up messes themselves, or set out stations for kids to assemble their own snacks. They provided pre-set activities, such as sensory bins or books, that kids could turn their attention to if they hit an obstacle with an activity they were working on.
For other non-urgent needs, kids with phones could text or email their parent, who would address it on their next break. One family had a notebook where kids wrote down what they needed.
"Inevitably, the kids will run into a snag, at least 4 times per week, and need my assistance during the workday. They will enter my work area quietly and with a show of fingers indicate the level of importance and urgency. I have worked on empowering my kids to prioritize and adapt, so when they run into a snag they will move onto something else. Therefore, when they do interrupt, I know they have exhausted their options and really need my time. I will reply with a show of fingers how many minutes I need to end my call or video conference, and promptly attend to them. This strategy of both empowering them and quickly responding when they have an issue has worked for us." - Mom, Healthcare purchasing director, 3 kids
- Breaks throughout the day.
Parents didn’t see their workdays as a monolithic unit of time. They managed their responsibilities and arising needs and requests, while being gentle on themselves and helping meet family needs. Going for a walk with their kids and meal prepping became cognitive breaks in their day. Afternoon walks were especially helpful as many kids became restless later in the day (as one dad called it, the “terrible 2:00.”)
These parents took great pride in doing great work and in their relationships with their teams and managers. Most were very transparent with their teams about their lifestyle choices and especially their role as a homeschooling parent. They were open with close colleagues about their occasional attention to kids’ needs during the conventional workday. A few signposted their availability, for instance, by carefully blocking off their calendar, which was respected by their colleagues.
"It is so important that employers are understanding of the bigger picture, and that loyalty and output are more important than abiding with a 9 to 5 schedule." - Mom, Healthcare purchasing director, 3 kids
"My supervisor knows that I take my work seriously and generally do not need oversight. I have since the very beginning of my career with [company] been one of the top performers on my team. As such, I am able to help my kids fairly easily throughout my day. My wireless headset allows me to essentially coach by walking around. There are no policies or procedures in place that say I cannot walk around. As long as there are no background noises when I talk on the phone I am fine." - Mom, Enrollment counsellor, 2 kids
Unexpected situations at work, especially those that involved stakeholders other than the employee’s immediate team, were the most likely to create stress for the whole family. Emergencies, quick-turnaround client requests, or same-day demands from leadership were the most difficult, throwing a wrench into the most well-oiled family systems.
"Sometimes a question or problem will come up and a customer is waiting or something where we need to address it ASAP. That will throw off my whole day, but it is important in order to do my job...This always frustrates my family." - Mom, Director of User Experience, 3 kids
Take action on supporting these practices: How employers can participate
- Know that same-day or fast-turnaround work requests from senior leadership really impacts families. Ask your leadership team to think proactively and develop systems to avoid these.
- Mid-morning is prime time for parents to help kids learn, and mid-afternoon can be prime time for kid-generated chaos. Consider parents when scheduling meetings, and show sensitivity and empathy if unexpected needs come up.
- The clients you choose, and their culture, dramatically impact your employees’ wellbeing, especially if your company is wired to assume “the client is always right.” Develop principles for the types of clients you will or will not engage with, and empower your team to set boundaries professionally.
- Trust your employees to create custom systems that enable them to get great work done, even if that work doesn’t happen during the conventional 9-5 workday.
- Evangelize building great relationships and strong teams. Celebrate managers who give their direct reports agency and autonomy while keeping the standard of work excellent.
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About the authors:
|Mitra Martin, Learning Experience Design Lead
Learn more about Mitra.
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