I have been working remotely and from home for almost ten years. In that span of time, I’ve learned how to navigate the isolation, overcome the unique challenges of disbursed team work and become familiar with a wide variety of online tools and in-home technology that I can leverage to make my job easier. I know the importance of designating an in-home office space, setting a daily schedule and creating clear boundaries between work and home in order to facilitate an environment conducive to concentration, productivity and overall work satisfaction. Though it had taken me nearly a decade to find that fine balance between work and family, I had created a great set up and was thoroughly enjoying the fruits of those labors.
When COVID hit, however, that amazing, time-tested structure crumbled overnight. I can hear your confused query now: But Laura, if you were already working from home, how was it any different?
1. Space Invaders. One of the key factors of success at work is having the space – both physical and mental – to allow for creativity and concentration. On an average, pre-COVID day, I would have a solid 6-8 hours of that time while my husband was at work and the kids were at school. The house was quiet and organized and I could easily get into a fantastic flow of writing, reading, client calls and strategy sessions. This was the first thing to go during COVID.
Kids are natural invaders of space and destroyers of any kind of organization. It is not (usually) intentional – they love you and want to be near you and think that your office is cool and want (or need) to spread out all of their things. When learning from home, they also need their own work spaces. In their search for that perfect place to land, it was only natural that they wanted to join in on my office “fun.” While endearing, the presence of both kids and their constant and incredible messes was (and is) highly distracting.
2. Shattered Schedules. Most business coaches or entrepreneurial guides will tell you that one of the keys to success is schedule blocking. You need to create both regular work (office) hours and, within that timeframe, designate blocks of time for specific tasks. This way, you can fully focus on one deliverable at a time and move forward in a conscious, deliberate way. This is much more effective an approach than simply reacting to every email or telephone call. Such a great strategy…and it really works…when you can actually control your schedule (and – as noted in Point 1 – when you are the only one in the house).
My pre-COVID schedule had intentionally made accommodations for family needs. I worked when everyone was out of the house and tried my best to be fully available to them in the evenings and weekends. It was an incredibly rewarding balance for all of us. Of course, there would be an occasional call, meeting or trip that I needed to take that would give them a small glimpse into my professional world, but for the most part, my two roles were separated – just as they would be if I had an office outside of the home.
When everyone was suddenly at home, they – both kids and spouse – (naturally) assumed that I would be fully available to them at all times. We had to work hard to establish new expectations and boundaries. The growing pains were intense.
3. Snacks. I love cooking for my family. Ironically, it is not because I actually love cooking; rather, it is because providing healthy homemade meals are a way that I express my love for my family. They like it too…I mean, who wouldn’t like to have meals prepared for them all day every day?
Pre-COVID, I would pack lunches and snacks at the same time that I was prepping dinner. When the kids would leave for school, they’d have their sustenance for the day…and I wouldn’t have to think about food prep until much later in the day. I was happy with creative combinations of leftovers for my lunch…something quick and tasty to keep me energized. With everyone home, however, I wasn’t pre-packing lunches or snacks anymore…and maybe it was actual hunger (or more likely boredom), but my kids’ consumption of food grew exponentially when COVID hit. I honestly think they’ve turned into Hobbits: breakfast, elevensies, lunch, supper, dinner… So. Many. Snacks.
I admit it was my own parental hang-up that kept me going back to the kitchen to serve up the next course, but it took me a few months to let go and to get them to feed themselves in a semi-healthy way. Those months were exhausting…and contributed greatly to the loss of a predictable schedule (Please refer back to Point 2 as you imagine a small voice yelling out “Mom, I’m hungry!”).
4. Schooling. I count myself among the very luckiest when it comes to schooling during COVID. We are currently posted overseas, so the kids attend a private school that requires them to have their own iPads or laptops. Within days of the school closing last February, a comprehensive long-distance learning program was up and running. It was amazing. This Fall, the kids went back to school in a hybrid mode. Some days at home, some days at school. (The complicated, color-coded hybrid schedule is a topic that must be saved for another conversation altogether.)
Despite having some semblance of a curriculum, school became much more ‘hands on’ for us parents. In addition to having to set up make-shift desks and individual work spaces, we had to get involved in our kids’ learning. Math questions (and not just any math questions…NEW math questions). Science experiments. Jump-roping routines. Writing logs. Though I love giving a good presentation, that single skill pales in comparison to the battery of talents required to be a good teacher. Teaching is HARD. Thank God for trained and enthusiastic educators.
5. Spouse in the House. As all of us Foreign Service spouses can relate, our employee spouses are gone all the time. Whether due to a VIP visit, emergent political crisis or TDY travel need, our spouses work long hours and are away from home for weeks – sometimes years – at a time. We both laugh and complain about the hardship…and we learn to cope. We set up systems and schedules and keep a mental list of what has to be done and what goes where. It is the only way to survive.
My husband and I celebrated our 18th anniversary this year. In that time, we’ve (narrowly) survived three unaccompanied tours and innumerable TDY trips. Thanks to COVID, this is the first time in nearly two decades that we have spent this much time together.
In so many ways, this has been an unexpected blessing. Instead of exchanging schedules on a weekly basis, we get to sit down and actually talk. He gets to see what the daily running of our house looks like, and he gets to participate. Where once I did almost everything on my own (and in my own way), I get to share the workload.
While this seems like a dream come true, it took major adjustment. As with an unaccompanied tour, the separation is hard…and the reincorporation harder. While grateful to be reunited, we have both had to learn what it is like to really live together. Additionally, when on an alternating work schedule, my husband had actual free time at home. My work, however, did not stop. I was irritated that he had so much time on his hands…he was annoyed that I couldn’t/wouldn’t spend more time with him during the day.
I know I am not alone on this…just yesterday, I was arranging a (COVID safe) get together for one of my daughters and offered to have another child come to our house so that her parents could have a date day. The mom immediately responded: “You are so sweet. Trust me, I don’t need any more time with my husband. He is still working from home.” (Followed by the laughing so hard you are crying emoji. 😉
These are but five of the main ways that working from home has changed drastically for me under COVID (so far). Looking back, I can see that though rough at times, a lot of good has come out of this period in my life. The irony of it all is that I think when things do return to “normal” (whenever that may be), I am going to both miss certain aspects of and strive to maintain some of the changes COVID has initiated in our lives:
I have learned how to be an active part of my kids’ education. I now know so much more about: how my kids learn, where they thrive and where they struggle, how they organize their thoughts and assignments. I now know where and when they truly need my support.
I have a greater appreciation for the small moments. Yes, I did liken my kids to hostile aliens and intentionally used a play on words to suggest that my husband was a bit of a pest…but semantics aside, how sweet are those spontaneous hugs and laughs over a shared mid-week lunch? How wonderful is it, really, to have a spouse who is not only physically present but relaxed and rested enough to be fully present? I think we all know each other so much better having had this time at home.
I am a better communicator. I was (eventually) successful in sharing more of the household chores. I have learned to communicate more directly with my husband and kids about my own needs. It feels like the weight of balancing work and home is a little lighter…and I’ll happily take that and try to extend it beyond these COVID days.
Sudden shifts, though difficult to manage at first, can be those pivotal moments in life when we turn down a new and very positive path. I think that has happened for me. What about for you?
What IS working for you in this new scenario? What are you LOVING about the new structure of work, of life? How might you hold onto this? How might you preserve these aspects of your “new normal”?
What ISN’T working? What changes can you make in an effort to course correct? Who can help you make these changes?
What are your greatest takeaways from these COVID days? How have you changed or grown? How has working from home or on an alternative work schedule shifted your perspective on how your work might be done in the future? What are your new core values (aka non-negotiables)?
Please note that parts of this article have also appeared here.
Laura Sheehan is a lawyer turned career strategist. As the wife of a U.S. diplomat, Laura has lived in eight countries over the span of nearly 20 years. With great determination, she succeeded in finding ways to continue her professional development despite her many moves. Laura now utilizes her diverse personal and professional experiences to empower her clients to find their place – wherever they are…in life and in the world.
Laura owns her own consultancy – E.P. Career Strategies, LLC – and maintains independent contracts with other career coaching platforms including RiseSmart and NetExpat. She was featured on the Thriving Abroad podcast in March 2018, selected as the 2018 recipient of AAFSW’s prestigious Champion for Career Enhancement award and was thrilled to be the first speaker for TEDx Hanoi 2018 event, where she talked about career change. The talk is now on the TED platform with more than 650,000 views!
More recently, she was a speaker for the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) 2019 Annual conference and appeared on the October 2019 Zen Brothers’ “Everyday Masters” podcast. As part of her volunteer work as a mentor for the Tomodachi Metlife Women’s Leadership Program, she provided a 5-part interview series in May of this year entitled, “Own Your Life, Design Your Future.”
In addition to her paid work, Laura co-founded a free monthly speaker series and professional development group called “Empowering Perspectives.” The Empowering Perspectives community launched in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2017 and how has active chapters across Asia. With the social distancing requirements of COVID-19, Empowering Perspectives is now fully online.
Questions? Feel free to email Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org