Mastering the Work-From-Home Juggling Act
Triangle parents share 6 tips for balancing work and life
A deep sense of irony struck me while writing this article. I was simultaneously conducting a phone interview, paying bills and praying the dryer wouldn’t wake up my daughter from her nap.
On productive days, when I meet an assignment deadline and get the laundry folded, it feels like I have this work-from-home life balance down pat. But when both my inbox and sink are piled high, and there’s little more than a door to separate the two, that balance really feels off kilter.
Working from home is on the rise. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23% of workers spent some time working from home during an average workday in 2017. And with an increase in families that have both parents working (63% of families now consist of working married parents with kids under age 18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), working from home helps parents do their jobs without paying for child care, and gives them an opportunity to go into business for themselves.
According to a Feb. 15, 2017, New York Times article titled, “Out of the Office: More People are Working Remotely, Survey Finds,” many industries are embracing work-at-home policies — especially the finance, insurance and real estate industries. The percentage of workers in those fields who reported working remotely at least sometimes rose from 39% in 2012 to 47% in 2016, according to the article.
Parents who work from home face a unique challenge, however: managing work-life balance. Three Triangle parents offer tips for how to navigate those challenges, set boundaries and reap the rewards.
1. Bust the Work-from-Home Myth
One assumption many people make about working from home is that it’s hard to get any real work done (Google “work-from-home memes” for starters). But Nick Williams of Durham, who traded in his retail job to become a freelance writer and stay-at-home dad, hasn’t found that to be the case.
“I thought I’d be less efficient, but the opposite is true. If I want to spend 30 minutes on a personal project, it helps me get my obligations done in a more efficient way,” he says.
Michelle Vanderwalker, a ceramicist who lives and works from home in Durham, also finds that she’s more productive than she would be in a traditional job setting.
“I’m doing something that I love to do, and when I’m in the flow, I’m likely to spend much more time doing something than I would if I were going to a job for a specific amount of time,” she says.
2. Create a Workspace and Set Boundaries
Having a designated workspace is key to work-from-home success. It’s helpful if there’s a door, but if not, you can still set boundaries and make it clear to your family that when you’re in your workspace, you’re not to be disturbed. Try hanging a sign on your door that tells family members when you’re not to be interrupted.
Cary Heise, who started a company located in Raleigh called Designed for Joy that facilitates transitional work experiences for women coming from vulnerable situations, does much of her job from her home office in Apex. She’s protective of her workspace, particularly since she holds client meetings there.
“It’s not a playroom. It’s not supposed to be where people gather to watch TV. It is my office,” Heise says. “I have to respect that boundary, too, because sometimes I can move away from that.”
Another key to setting parameters is managing expectations. For Heise, communication is paramount, so she shares her weekly schedule with her family. That way they know when she will be hosting or attending an event, or when she needs to block out time to prepare for a trip.
Be sure to keep your own expectations realistic, too. As with parenting, working from home requires you to roll with the punches. Williams has learned to accept that if his daughter stays home sick, he must drop everything to take care of her and carve out time outside of his usual work schedule to meet work deadlines.
3. Cash in on the Benefits
A flexible schedule is a big perk of working from home. Since Williams isn’t worried about clocking in and out for a shift, he can make time for events he used to miss out on — like hitting the gym or scheduling lunch with a friend.
If your spouse also works from home, take advantage of the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with each other. Heise and her husband often enjoy lunch dates while the kids are at school.
Vanderwalker stays on top of her workload while home schooling her two kids by carving out time to work while they’re asleep. And because there’s no morning hustle to get out the door, she has more flexibility to help them with schoolwork, or take family walks during the afternoon.
Some work-from-home parents may be able to transform work activities into enrichment or educational experiences for the kids. Vanderwalker and her husband, Sean Umstead, own Kingfisher, a Durham craft cocktail bar that focuses on fruit- and vegetable-infused drinks. They often take their kids fruit-picking at local farms. Even if the children don’t last the entire day to help pit cherries in the kitchen, they do gain an appreciation for hard work.
Heise says working from home has helped foster her kids’ independence; they make their own lunches and take responsibility for small housekeeping tasks.
4. Call for Backup
Just because you work solo doesn’t mean you can’t call for reinforcements. In fact, asking for help is essential. If Vanderwalker needs extra time to fill an order of custom plates, she can drop off her kids at their grandparents’ house, or call a friend to ferry them to after-school activities.
Heise realized she couldn’t do it all as a work-from-home mom and has since hired a monthly cleaning service. She also isn’t shy about asking other parents to bake treats or help out with other tasks for school events.
5. Put a Premium on Your Sanity
Even with the most ideal work-from-home setup, doing your job can feel like a daily grind. Shake up your routine every so often by working from a coffee shop, library or coworking space to keep your workflow fresh and to help inspire new ideas.
Since you don't have as much interaction with co-workers when you work from home, connecting with other adults is still important. Vanderwalker hosts a weekly potluck with friends and family, while Heise plans playdates with friends.
“[We] to go to the beach and we paddleboard all day,” she says. “I don’t want another meeting or lunch date. I want to have a real adventure and have time with friends.”
6. Don’t Neglect Self-Care
Be intentional and consistent about taking care of yourself by building time for it into your workday. Schedule a morning exercise session, or a 15-minute break to walk or read for fun. Which reminds me, it’s time for my lunch break. That load of towels can wait, right?
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur and Refinery29; and in Raleigh Magazine, The News & Observer and INDY Week. Learn more about her at glassofrose.blogspot.com, @glassofrose on Twitter.