How to survive (and enjoy!) the school holidays when you work from home - Part 1

The school holidays are looming.

If you’re a parent who works from home, your ‘office’ is about to be overrun by excitable little people for six weeks. 

For us remote workers, childcare is still a big issue: so we’ve put together some ideas to help with the childcare juggling act. 

If you have school-age kids, the long summer holidays can be a real challenge. Suddenly, the bulk of your day-to-day child-free time evaporates. If you work from home, you’ll also see your work space invaded by an incoming tide of lego and loom bands.

Working from home does help – at least we don’t have to fit a long commute into our days. But those of us with younger children still definitely need some childcare cover to make it all work. The reality is that the available/affordable childcare options often don’t meet our needs. If you’re new to remote working or just getting back to work with children, it can all feel really daunting.

So what to do? There are no easy answers, and what works for my family might not work for yours. But after a few years in the trenches, here are some of my favourite tips and ideas.

1. Make a plan

I resisted doing this for ages but it really does help. Get your diary of choice and pencil in all the days you (and your partner if relevant) are taking off as holiday time. Add in any big work deadlines or important meetings – times when you’ll definitely need to be available for work. Can you do a bit of expectation management with clients or colleagues? Is there a project you can shift a little bit? Are there conference calls you’re scheduled to be on, where a quick update on Slack would be fine instead?

2. Get creative with childcare options

Once you’ve got a rough outline of your summer work schedule, it’s time for the really hard part – the childcare juggle.

Most places have a few big-name holiday clubs, such as Barracudas, that are well organised and offer loads of different activities. But they can be pricey, and often book up early. And in more rural areas, your options may be very limited.

Here are a few other ideas to try that I wish I’d known about when I first started the great Holiday Childcare Hunt: 

  • With primary-school aged children, I have to admit, it didn’t occur to me to try the local high school. But high schools often run (relatively affordable) holiday clubs over the summer. These may be open to younger children and to kids who don’t actually go to the school. For example, my local high school runs an ‘arty / sporty’ club for three days a week, for 7-14 year olds. Pre-schools often do a similar thing for the little ‘uns (again, they may take older children as well).
  • Organisations that run term-time clubs – such as dance schools, gym classes and other sports clubs – may also offer holiday versions for anything from a few hours to full days.
  • Your local leisure centre or any nearby outdoor education centres are also worth investigating. 
  • Community venues such as places of worship sometimes offer affordable holiday clubs and activity days.
  • In the UK, the network of WildLife Trusts has fab nature-reserves all over the country – their staff and volunteers run low-cost activity days throughout the holidays, offering pond-dipping, nature-themed crafts and loads more. Some are family days where you stay with your children; others allow you to leave children for a day of well-structured, outdoorsy fun.

Once you’ve got a list of clubs and activity days, you can start booking, and get those added to your plan. The reality is, most of these activities may not offer a full day of childcare. And you’ll probably end up with a patchwork of half-days here and afternoons there. But hopefully you’ll be able to find options that your children will enjoy, that will also fill in some childcare gaps for you.

 

3. Involve family and friends if possible

Exhausted all the official options? It’s time to rope in some helpers…

  • Try a swap with a friend. If you’ve got a friend with similar childcare woes, you could take turns to look after the kids. If that feels like a big ask, how about a meetup with another home-working parent, where you each take a turn on kid-duty, while the other one puts in some laptop-time? That way you’re also still on hand to sort toddler squabbles and kiss hurt knees better.
  • Rope in grandparents. If you are lucky and have grandparents who live close enough, and who are willing and able, this can be a massive help – and lovely for children too.  Thank you, grandparents of the land!

4. Make a pact with older kids

If you have older children who can safely be unsupervised for a little while, and you are working from home, you could try making a ‘holiday agreement.’ Explain that that you still need to get some work done during the day. Help them plan out some fun activities they can do (relatively) unsupervised while you are having your ‘office time.’ Set some clear start and finish times. 

Let them know that you really appreciate their help. Offer incentives for positive behaviour (aka bribes). For example, “I really need to work until lunchtime, but then we can hang out (or I’ll drive you somewhere) for the rest of the day – do you fancy going to the park/pool/beach/a friend’s house in the afternoon?” 

Be prepared for this strategy to be only moderately successful, particularly if siblings are involved. Someone will hurt themselves / start an argument / lose a vital piece of a model, and require your instant, unwavering attention. Usually just when you are starting a conference call with a new client.

5. Be upfront with coworkers and clients

This one is really hard. We have a work culture where the ideal is dedication to your role at all times. Most of us with children or other caring roles (such as looking after elderly parents) feel huge pressure to fit in.

Of course, we want to pull our weight. And of course, we don’t want to put an unfair burden on colleagues without these extra demands on their time. So we kind of sweep it under the rug, and try not to make a fuss about how impossible the summer juggling act can be.  

But kids and other caring roles often don’t conveniently fit in with work schedules. 

I spent a few years working with refugee organisations in Thailand. Everyone worked really hard, and ran some great projects. But work somehow seemed to be more elastic. Babies came to meetings to be fed and nobody looked twice. Sick children meant a few days off work, with no fuss. Work accommodated life. In exchange, life often accommodated work – people worked evenings or weekends if something really needed to get done in a hurry. 

More recently, I’ve been inspired by people like Clara Wilcox from coaching organisation The Balance Collective. Her email sign-off makes clear that she works part-time. It sets out times she will be available, and when she won’t be. Check out her great article explaining how to use auto-respond as a tool to showcase your values, stay connected, manage your time, and stay in touch.

And earlier this year I wrote about the British Breastfeeding Network – a national charity running a popular helpline. All their staff – including the senior management – work part-time, from home. And you know what? It works just fine.  

“I can’t get to the phone right now, please leave a message and I’ll get back to you…”  Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

 

So, I’m making a plea for a little more summer-time flexibility, and a little more openness. I’m happy to put my hand up and say, I won’t be available as much over the summer holidays. This doesn’t mean I’m not professional, or that I’m not passionate about my work – I am. But I’m not going to pretend that it will be ‘full steam ahead’ during this time. Because caring for kids (or elderly relatives, or unwell family members) is really important work too.

If you are a coworker or a client, we ask for a little kindness, flexibility and patience. And we promise we’ll do the same for you, if you need it one day.

My nemesis. (Photo by Yaniv Knobel on Unsplash)

6. Consider time-shifting your day

If you work from home and have a flexible employer (or clients, if you’re freelance), you could try ‘time shifting’. This is not nearly as exciting and Doctor-Who-ish as it sounds. It just means moving your work hours earlier or later, to times when your children might still be asleep.

I am not a morning person. At all. But this summer, I’m going to try getting up extra early to fit in a couple of hours work before the children get going. This is most probably not an option if you have very young children, who are likely to be up at the crack of dawn anyway. But my kids are 8 and 11, so it’s doable. My plan is to squeeze in some work from say 7am to 8 or 9am on days where I don’t have other childcare options.

 

I may not be able to get a big chunk of focused work done, but hopefully it will mean I can keep on top of emails, looking after the website and other routine tasks. Of course, I may not make it past Day Two – I’ll let you know how it goes!

7. Get partners involved

In most two-parent families I know, all this planning and juggling and stressing seems to fall mainly on one parent. So, if that’s not you – if you’re the parent who perhaps doesn’t work from home and/or does less of the day-to-day childcare – make sure you get involved. Don’t just sail through the next six weeks oblivious. Sympathy is great, but helping is better.

“Sympathy is great. But helping is better”.

So partners, get stuck in now. Help research clubs and childcare centres. Do some of the ringing round and booking. Help set up a joint online calendar so you can both see what’s happening each day, and where the gaps are. Have those awkward conversations with your boss, too. (“I’d love to be in that important meeting and then come to drinks with the client, but unfortunately I’ll be taking a holiday day so that I can look after my children.”)

 

And if you’re a single parent tackling the summer holidays solo? 

We’ve just got one thing to say…

8. Aim to have boundaries between work-time and family-time. Accept this won’t always happen, and be kind to yourself. 

I am terrible at this. Most home-working parents know that feeling; you’re trying to draft an important email message, whilst simultaneously cooking a healthy meal and adjudicating a heated debate over the rules of a game.

In those moments, I know I end up feeling like I’m doing all of it badly.

I’m trying to get better at having ‘work time’ and ‘family time’. Once work time is done, I’m going to be putting my laptop on a high shelf and stuffing my phone under a sofa cushion. And when I don’t manage it? That’s fine too, I’ll try again the next day.

I actually love having my kids at home through the holidays (mostly!), and I want to be able to really enjoy our time together. Which brings me to Number 9…

9. Have fun

I know, I know. You’ve just spent weeks getting five different types of childcare in place. Your holiday schedule is more complicated that your last major work project. But those days or hours when you’re not working? Yes, there will be squabbles to sort out, and days when wrangling hot, grumpy small children seems like harder work than your other work.

But there’s also time for paddling pools, and den-building, and silly family games, and cooking, and movies, and just – being a family. And that’s what the summer holidays are about, too. 🙂

 

Look out for Part 2: my list of child-pleasing activity ideas for indoors and outdoors, for those times when you just need a little bit of instant inspiration.

Hope your summer goes well. We’d love you to say hi on Facebook – come and share your holiday survival woes – and joys!

Happy Summer Holidays! – Lucy (Founder, myworkhive)

 

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