Tech won't save you from lockdown disaster: How to manage family and free time while working from home

Tips from El Reg hack with two decades of WFH experience

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If you aren’t already, chances are that your home will soon become a prison of sorts as efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus force, or at least encourage, us to “shelter in place” with only very occasional trips out for food, medicine, and fresh air.

From California and New York in the US to Europe and the UK, citizens are being told to keep their distance from one another, work from home if possible, close schools and universities, and avoid pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms, hairdressers, clubs, and similar places.

If you live alone, congratulations, you’ve only got one set of demons to deal with. For those of you with partners also obliged to work from home and/or kids whose schools have closed, let’s be honest, this is going to get fractious.

So here is your humble vulture's pragmatic guide to getting through it without permanently damaging your closest relationships, based on nearly two decades of hard-won knowledge. It's not all about tech; you need to consider the human element.

But before we get into it, let’s spend a moment imagining the glorious end of this self-imposed social exile.

Whenever people are forced to collectively and radically change their daily lives, thanks to external events, its ending brings a heavy dose of joy; a joint experience that we will continue to talk about years later; a sense of having all been “in it together.” Hold onto that feeling. It is there, in the future, coming soon.

Great. Now pull your boots on because it’s time to wade in the sewer pipe that will be your life for the next few weeks.

It’s time to get healthy(ish)

Everyone has a plan to live more healthily. Some smug people even manage it. But now is the time to actually do it, not because you’re making the most of this time, or out of some daft notion that you will come out of this experience a stronger, better person but because if you don’t, you’ll feel it.

Getting up and out to work, working, and then coming back home is exercise you simply won’t get if you work from home. Without it, you will grow more and more sluggish over time and your mood will slip. You need to add it into your schedule.

  • Get up in the morning and do some exercise. Give yourself at least 10-15 minutes. Do some stretching, or running, or weights, or whatever. And do it again at the end of the day. Every day. Trust us on this. Here's one idea. If you can go outside for fresh air, go for a 30 minute walk or longer, or a run if you're on the sporty side.

Eat better than you normally would. If you buy your lunch every day from a cafe or similar, the people you bought it from most likely put more effort than you realize into making it. In other words, follow their cue and put some effort into your lunch as well as your breakfast and dinner. Use fresh fruit and veg, season it, take no shortcuts with low-nutrition frozen stuff, and avoid grazing all day on junk food. Buy as much as you need; don't panic hoard.

  • Eat better. Cook if at all possible.

A big one: sleep more. You’re going to need it, especially if the stuck-at-home situation is stressing you out. If you have a partner, sleep more more. If you have kids, sleep more, more, more. Literally everything is going to be easier with more sleep. Try not playing that game, or not binge-watching that show. Reading a book is the best option at the end of the day.

  • Sleep more. Go to bed earlier. You won’t regret it.

Working from home habits

Working from home should be no different to going to work. But it is very easy to treat work days like weekends – and that will very quickly drag. How do you develop good work-at-home habits? Easy:

  • Get out of bed and shower and put on your clothes for work just as you normally would at the same time you would normally do it.
  • Organize all the small non-work things you need to do before you start work – and then leave them until after work (maybe do urgent stuff at lunchtime). Don’t let them seep into your day.
  • Treat the end of the work day as the end of your work day. Say goodbye, see you tomorrow or Monday, and log off. Walk away from the work laptop. Even if others don’t. They will burn out, you won’t.

The truth is that because so many people are working from home when they would normally be in the office, coworkers and bosses are going to want to talk to you at seemingly random times. Take care of yourself and disconnect. Assert some self-control.

Work space

Take it from someone who has worked from home on-and-off for over 20 years: you need a dedicated work space.

If you have a spare room, this is the time, right now, to turn it into a home office. It doesn’t have to be Instagrammable, it just has to have: a desk, a chair, a powerstrip, Wi-Fi reception or some networking, and dedicated space for work stuff. Move the bed out the way, or against the wall. If you have kids, having a clearly defined space that they know is not to be touched or played in is going to save your sanity.

It is just about possible to work in a lounge or a kitchen but it will become a drag very quickly. Figure out a quick-and-easy way to box off a space using physical barriers. Setting up and taking down this space is a clear signal to you and anyone else in the house that you are working or have finished working.

Equally try to find a good space to make and receive calls where other people’s noise can’t spill over. A bathroom may seem like a good idea but the acoustics may drive you, and the other people on the call, crazy.

Emails

A quick and easy tip: almost any email with the word “coronavirus” in the title that isn’t from your boss or HR can be deleted.

It is the tagline everyone is using to try to get you to open their email – literally any company you have bought a product from in the past year, or has otherwise somehow got hold of your email address, is going to send you a message. You find it’s an enormous waste of your time, so opt out with an email filter.

Go outside

You’ll find that even five minutes outside will give you a mental break, and you’re going to need them.

The internet and devices

Get the fastest internet you can today. Upgrade to whatever max your ISP offers and downgrade again later if you need to. It’s worth the investment.

Whatever devices you have – tablets, laptops, phones etc – pull em out, update them and get them ready for use. The modern world has given us an incredibly effective way of being next to one another and worlds apart. It has its downsides but it has definite upsides too.

If you don’t have a pair of good headphones now may be the time to splash out.

Kids

OK, the big one, how do you deal with kids at home all day, especially if you need to work? This is a hard one but, based on the joint experiences of many parents, one clear point of success has shone through: a schedule.

It doesn’t have to be a good schedule. It doesn’t have to be precise. But your kids are used to being on a daily schedule at school, even if they’re not at home, and they will slip into it if you make a point of developing one.

The main reason for having a schedule is because it will give you the ability to plan your time, rather than being randomly and constantly interrupted. If you can, agree it with your children and print it out, and let them give you feedback for changing it. Add flexibility into the schedule by offering several slots of “choice time,” where they can choose the activity.

The truth is that not a single day will pass without the schedule falling apart, but it still lends a structure and lets you all get into your own work-at-home habits. In our house, the hour-long slots mean that, most of the time, we get blocks of 45 minutes of uninterrupted time. Just turn up as the slot closes and move your kids into the next activity and head off again.

It won’t always work like this but it is better than the alternative. What you will probably find is frustrating gaps of 15-20 minutes where you need to get on with something and the kids claim to have finished whatever it is you set them to doing. As such, it is worth getting them to draw up a list of fun things that you both judge will take about 20 minutes and direct them to it whenever necessary.

Another life-saver: a Do Not Disturb sign for you to put up to tell your kids to leave you alone for a few minutes. If you can get them to make it themselves, all the better. Try your absolute best not to abuse it by over-using it, though, because once that sign loses its power, you can never get it back again. Actively encouraging notes to be slid under doors or over tables during these Do Not Disturb periods is also good for everyone’s sanity.

Screamtime

Giving your child an iPad (or similar) is a deal with the devil. You will therefore pay, one way or another, for every second they passively watch something. The good news is that there is a wealth of online resources that actively engage children, and largely avoid a meltdown over screentime.

The shelter-at-home mandate has been a boon: lots of smart, fun, engaging people are offering free online courses. Because everyone knows the pain of kid burnout. Here are three good, and currently free, examples. There are many, many more out there:

  • Storyline: famous folk reads good kids books.
  • Khan Academy: loads of engaging online courses
  • BrainPop: an online history, science and math tool

With any luck your kids’ teachers will be sending through lesson plans and ideas. The truth is that what works for a teacher does not work for a parent: because you will want to be constantly sneaking off to do your stuff.

To their credit, a lot of teachers recognize this reality and so the good ones will suggest resources that take on the active role that they are normally engaged in. But the truth is that if you want to maintain your own sanity and your normal evening routine, you are going to have to carve out additional time every day to engage in a real way with your kids.

If you don’t want to do that, fine: just be aware that there will be a price to pay as a result.

Partner management

Every good marriage or long-term relationship has a healthy dose of distance built in: and that is going to get much smaller if you are both in the same place all day. This is going to get exponentially worse if the current situation impacts your finances.

There is no good guide to navigating this: every relationship is different. But a very good idea is to either ask or figure out the things you do that most irritate your partner, and then don’t do them for a bit.

Also try to set aside some time every day to do something you wouldn’t normally: cleaning up, washing clothes or dishes, cooking, doing that thing you said you would but have been putting off – it doesn’t matter what. Just do additional somethings. When you’re in close quarters, the small things matter.

Music can also work wonders - so long as the other people around you like it. Why not ask? Mellow music can relax everyone. Head-banging can be a good release of energy. With modern streaming services, it’s incredibly easy to find an enormous range.

Keeping in touch

Another great way to escaping the claustrophobia of your own home is to call people using video conferencing: again, another reason to get out all those devices and get the best internet package you can for a few months.

Whether that is FaceTiming with old friends, a Zoom call between kids, or Teams/Webex/Hangouts catch-ups with work colleagues, every piece of contact with someone not in the same four walls as you will feel like a connection to the outside world. Just do it.

The Italian Job

Unless you can sing well, or live in Italy, we’d recommend against trying to instigate a public singalong.

That’s it. Follow this guide and hopefully not only will you emerge from this time without lifelong emotional scars but you might actually enjoy small parts of it. Possibly. Best of luck, people. ®

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