My day starts at 4:45 am, when I get up and go to the gym. Shortly after my workout, the waterfall of demands begins. From making breakfast for the kids to reading through my emails, by 8:30 am I’ve been up for almost four hours and am practically thinking about lunch.
Nearly eight years ago I decided to leave traditional corporate life behind and cofound a digital marketing agency. A virtual firm, we rely on a team of people who work remotely, the majority of whom happen to be moms. I made this shift, in part, because I wanted greater work-life balance and to be more available for my family.
But is this balance what I got?
As others who have made similar shifts from “corporate office to couch” will attest, the answer is complicated. There are both pros and cons of working from home and being in charge of my own schedule. While I’m able to attend my kids’ school events, take care of them when they’re sick, and run errands during the day, on most days I feel pulled in a thousand directions. While job flexibility is often held up as the great salvation of the hard-charging professional who also wants more time with his or her children, it doesn’t necessarily lighten the full load of work and family responsibilities. From client meetings and project deadlines to Sisyphean laundry piles and the sink full of dishes I didn’t get to last night, my daily calendar is fuller than it ever was working from an office.
And then there are the things I miss. Like hallway conversations, lunch with colleagues, and that invaluable decompression time during the commute home. Of course, now I save money on lunch and gas, I don’t have to wear a suit every day, and my commute is as easy as moving from one room to the next.
As I started to think about blogging on this topic, and especially with Women’s Equality Day in sight (it’s today, btw!), I asked my work from home colleagues to weigh in. I was curious to know if their experiences had been the same does having job flexibility only encourage them to do more of everything? Do they find themselves responding to emails late at night (… while their spouses are watching Netflix)? Are they caught in an endless loop of multi-tasking? Or is working from home giving them balance they have always wanted?
Lisa M. said she had been commuting 64 miles each way and spending too much time away from her son before she started working with our team. “Often times I was out the door before he woke up and getting home after he had gone to bed. I missed all of his major milestones and really wanted to spend more time at home with him before he started school, which was quickly approaching.”
Charlene admitted that she loves the “no drama, no politics, no distractions atmosphere” that she has at home. “I feel I am a lot more productive when I’m in my own element.”
Meanwhile, Lisa E. among others shared that they sometimes missing “the in-person social interactions that you get in an office environment.”
And the need to set boundaries for oneself came up more than once. “If you want to create a work-life balance,” says Brenda, “you need to set up barriers so that you can stop and take time for yourself and your family. Working for a company that is supportive of that truly helps!”
Lauren admitted that she is just as busy as when she worked in an office, but “my family calendar has changed … and our lives feel less rushed and less pressured than before.”
Without a doubt, it takes strength and determination to work from home. And, sometimes, I get tired of talking to my plants. But at the end of the day, I do think that I’ve been able to create a balance in my life, one that has helped me contribute in a more valuable way to my company and be more available to my family at the same time.
Ten tips for the home-office advantage
If you’re a parent who is considering working from home, my Smart Panda colleagues and I have assembled our top ten tips for living the dream. Some of these tips have been honed by experience, others are new to us, too. We continue to explore the best ways to strike a perfect balance, and we invite you to join us in this quest!
- Create a routine and set a schedule. While having kids seems antithetical to scheduling your time, having structure is a blessing. My recommendation—make a daily routine that includes getting up before your family in order to take time for yourself or get things done. If you’re looking for tools to better understand how you allocate your time, or for setting a schedule for your entire family, check out these 168 Hours spreadsheets by time management expert Laura Vanderkam. (We’ll mention this guru again in this list!)
- Dress for success. Maybe it sounds ridiculous but getting dressed as if you were headed to work is good for your routine and helps you set boundaries. Studies have also shown that clothing affects your work. Researchers Joy V. Peluchette and Katherine Karl conducted a study that found participants reported feeling more authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing formal business attire. And a similar study from Northwestern University found that certain clothing can influence the wearer’s psychological processes. Plus, if you’re already dressed for the part, an impromptu video chat from colleagues or clients won’t throw you suddenly off your game.
- Stay social. Nope, this doesn’t mean posting on Facebook or Snapchat all day—unless of course your outfit is so on point, per tip #2, it requires it. Working from home can be isolating, so it’s a good idea to find local groups, co-working spaces, or networking events that help you stay connected to people in your industry or with whom you share interests. I’m practicing what I preach—I recently joined Women in Digital and am excited to attend their national conference next month! Need to ask a colleague a question? Instead of firing off an email, pick up the phone.
- Subscribe to this podcast. If you enjoy hearing from other moms who are making it work, then you will especially love the “Best of Both Worlds” podcast hosted by Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time and a mom of four, and Sarah Hart-Unger, a mom of three, practicing physician, and blogger. While it’s not specific to moms who work from home, there is no shortage of great tips and conversations on work/life balance, career development, parenting, time management, productivity, and making time for fun.
- Set aside a designated place for work. If feasible, a designated desk or office-like space in your house goes a long way toward helping you respect your work/life boundaries and reminding your kids and spouse to do the same (shhh, see, mommy is working). One of the moms on our team is a member of a co-working space, so she can keep all the flexibility she wants while also having access to a workspace free from distractions and toddler toys. Worth noting, if you intend to write off home office outlays on your taxes, you must have a designated area that is used on a regular basis and only for work. Snap a pic of the space, too, so you have a record in case the IRS is ever curious.
- Set boundaries. Working from home can be a slippery slope—it’s easy to think of yourself as “always at work.” Try to set boundaries for yourself that include a reasonable bedtime. Aim to disengage from your computer at least 30 minutes (ideally a full hour) before you go to sleep, as the “blue screen” effect of digital devices can wreak havoc on your sleep (it messes with the natural melatonin in our bodies). This will also help you clear your mind before nodding off.
- Create visibility at your company (a great tip from FlexJobs). If you work remotely but many of your colleagues don’t, it behooves you to show your face (video conference), speak up during phone calls, and be available to your co-workers or boss. You’ll be more likely to get the recognition you deserve for your accomplishments. You’ll also maintain stronger relationships with your virtual colleagues, and you’ll be better positioned to stay in the loop.
- Take time off: “Mom life” can be all-consuming, and we quickly forget that we need personal attention, too. Make sure you’re making time for doing the things that are important to you. Pedicure? Happy hour? Reading a book? Do it. Doting on yourself prevents you from burning out or feeling like you’re on the losing end of the balancing act. There is even science to back this up. Neuroscientist, medical doctor, and executive coach Tara Swart says taking a little extra time off from work helps to keep blood flowing to your brain, which in turn helps your stress level and your productivity. (Read more)
- Stay out of the kitchen. Ok, we snickered a bit when we wrote this, but only because it’s true. If you think meal planning is only for the office worker, think again. The constant access to food means mindless grazing, the shameful consumption of cheese puffs … and suddenly it’s the “freshman 15” all over again. Just as if you were working from an office, plan to take a designated lunch, set aside some healthy snacks, and otherwise get out of the kitchen.
- Remain flexible and embrace change. If you have kids, then you know full well that change is the only constant. It seems like the moment you hit your stride with a new routine, it’s time to shelve it. Maybe your family grew from two kids to three (go Jessica!), your childcare is changing, or your favorite morning rituals have been replaced with a drive to hockey practice. And then there are the myriad upheavals that come with simply being part of the workforce. Perhaps your company is under new leadership, your role is changing, or you’ve just been told that you need to sync your work schedule to another time zone. Know that your routines will need constant tweaking. Working from home can be a blessing or a curse and your approach determines how this experience will play out. Much like a corporate environment (and raising kids), boundaries must be set for you achieve balance in your home office life. I hope these tips and insights from team Panda’s moms will help you make the adjustment to—and reap the many benefits of—working from home.
Working from home can be a blessing or a curse and your approach determines how this experience will play out. Much like a corporate environment (and raising kids), boundaries must be set for you achieve balance in your home office life. I hope these tips and insights from team Panda’s moms will help you make the adjustment to—and reap the many benefits of—working from home.