By Puja Chandra Nanda
I have been working from home much before Covid-19 forced more than half of the world’s population into a mandatory work from home situation. In fact this year, marks 11 years of WFH for me. 11 years of planning and execution, of trial and error, of big struggles and small victories and of looking for the perfect formula to balance bringing up 2 boisterous boys while managing work deadlines and household chores. I didn’t find the perfect formula but I did make peace with what worked and I learned a lot along the way! Here I am sharing my accumulated wisdom with you and hope you find something to takeaway from here.
Working From Home is Not a Cakewalk!
Having led a corporate life with a regular 9 to 6 job for many years, I had always romanticized the notion of working from home till the first few weeks of actually being at it. My fantastical imagery changed to shock and disorientation as the days seem to pass by all too quickly and then rolled together into unproductive weeks! At the end of each day I was loaded with unfinished work assignments and household chores while riddled with guilt at not having spent enough time with my then toddler.
What happened to the notion of work life balance while working from home, I pondered in dismay? I had no clue what I was doing wrong! Each day started with a promise of productivity and ended with a feeling of utter helplessness. My first learning was that this arrangement is not easy or perfect.
I also learned that was in my hands alone to make it work – I needed to fix the blurry lines that traversed between work, homecare, childcare and back to work. I need to embolden each line so its clear to me and to others.
“Fix the blurry lines that traverse between work, household and childcare.”
Schedule Your “Me Time” First!
As women, we always tend to push our “me time” down to the list of priorities, saving it for a time when it doesn’t affect anyone or anything. I decided to push up my “me time” to the mornings. I start early every day before the daily humdrum has a chance to get on my nerves. I have a 45 minute routine of stretches, yoga and meditation followed by my shower and my “can’t live without” ginger tea. Unless there is a pressing need, I avoid interacting with people within the house during this time. I also try to keep off social media. This is what keeps me sane and preps me for the day! I know how important this routine is for me because on days that I can’t, things just start falling off the trajectory like a pack of cards!
I can’t stress on this quality enough. To be able to work from home, you need to be a zillion times more disciplined than if you were working from office. It’s because there can be several distractions at home, people and chores vying for your attention whichever way you turn your head and it can be pretty relentless. Also, with no one sitting in the next cubicle, it is also very easy to get carried off by a personal call or a social media post during the precious work hours.
When I sit at my desk, I take some time to check my emails and browse my social media pages and my phone notifications. But once I start work, I mute my phone and close all the social media tabs on my laptop, so I don’t get tempted to check if someone commented on a pic that I uploaded the previous night!
Being organized is one of the most underrated qualities and I understand that while it comes naturally to some people, others thrive in the disorganized mess, choosing to trust their instinct. However, for me a de-cluttered mind works best. I religiously use online or offline sticky notes to jot down what I need to do the next day – these are further categorized into Work, Home and Personal, so I am also reminded of chores that keep getting relegated to the back due to lack of time. I make it a point to strike it off/ tick against it the next day. It is deeply satisfying for me to be able to strike off all or most items.
And on “off tune” days, I know I need to pull up my socks the next day. I also make use of spreadsheets to keep track of assignments due, done, payments due and received. The biggest benefit of writing everything down is that you don’t have to bother about memorizing stuff or forgetting important tasks.
Multi-Task, if it Works for You
I often sit at my desk only to be struck by the infamous writer’s block. And by the time that clears up (while I feverishly clean my desk and mentally wish the clutter on my mind away!), it is time to get up do something for Senior A or pick up Junior A. I have found a way which is super effective in such situations – I think about my topic on hand while I finish mundane household chores (not when I am with the children). I get ideas to start with and sometimes even establish a mental flow. I make little notes on my phone or on a piece of paper that I can refer to later. Believe me, it works. When I finally reach my desk, I can start typing off instantly as I am already in the flow.
Women are natural multi-taskers (actually there is not much choice if you figure the amount of work they handle), but it is important to track whether the multi-tasking is productive. If not, switch to focusing on one task at a time. Find your style and stick to it!
When the situation does not allow to sit for hours at work, dividing your work in bite-sized portions works best. This again calls for both discipline and organizational skills so you can maximize the time on hand and be productive in the short bursts of work. I do it a lot in situations where everyone is at home and I can’t get hours to be at my desk.
It’s important to have some ground rules for yourself and others in the family and stick to them, come what may! Be consistent. Even children follow when they see that you are consistent with timings. Make exceptions only when there are exceptional circumstances. Don’t bend the rules at the smallest pretext because it becomes even more difficult to move back on track.
You have to admit, you can’t plan everything. Keep Plan B ready and train your mind for flexibility when things go wrong and believe me you, in work from home situations, they often will. A child falls sick the day you have an important event, meeting or deadline to service. The internet connectivity nosedives all of a sudden and you don’t have a backup. I have had days when I had to move my main working hours from the daytime to evenings and night. Since I don’t have to be logged in for a certain timing, I have the flexibility but many people won’t and will need to depend on multi-tasking or working bite-sized to get things done.
Let Things Go!
I find this the hardest thing to do. The person I am, I need to oversee everything. Meals, studies, cleaning of the house – everything. And I find it hard to let go if there are shortcomings anywhere. I have the urge to set things right immediately. But years of trying to be a superwoman and a supermom has not earned me any brownie points, rather it has left me exhausted to the core and grumpy. So I am learning to let go – bit by bit. This also means roping in the spouse and the children to take responsibility of few chores around the house and for their own requirements. And finally, shutting my mind to things that don’t need urgent attention or can’t be helped.
WFH During the COVID-19 – Circuit Breaker
While the practical tips above are useful in any work from home situation, they are more vital in the situation triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic situation. COVID-19 has come with its unique set of practical problems. With everyone at home, it is no longer just about managing time, it is also about managing space and expectations.
As home based learning started for both our boys- one in secondary school and one in primary and my husband also joined me in working from home, the first week was spent in rearranging work and learning spaces and setting up home office and home school. We decided to “go our separate ways” to allow each other the space to work freely and not step on each other’s toes, sound waves or nerves!
I count my blessings everyday that we have enough space, desks and gadgets in the house to support this unprecedented situation, which really helped. We still had to scramble to arrange cameras for zoom calls and check for working speakers/ headphones.
But this arrangement is not without its demerits – with all the rooms occupied from morning till evening, there is no time and scope for cleaning at a time when cleanliness is doubly important. This meant that I had to work out another timetable – this one for my helper- so the house didn’t look like a disaster zone.
Added to the cleaning woes comes the pressure of keeping virtual backgrounds clutter – free and to minimize household noises and chatter when a family member goes into a video call or a zoom lesson. It’s not easy and there are still awkward moments, but I soon realized everyone is caught in the same predicament. And ultimately home is home, we can’t replicate an office or school environment completely.
Finally, it is important to manage expectations well and fine tune them every few days. Predictably, being at home means everyone is hungry all the time. After trying hard for the first week of the circuit breaker period to adjust to everyone’s timings and stomach rumblings while managing my own work and helping out children in their HBL; I decided it was time to set some ground rules. So the first thing I did was to make sure everyone sits for meals on time. I prepare a hearty breakfast so the hunger pangs set in later than sooner. Any additional snacks are to be managed by the spouse and children themselves. I also try to make up for the boring food on weekdays with new recipes and elaborate dishes on weekends.
It can be overwhelming looking at all the fancy dishes people churn out everyday but I realized I don’t have to become a chef overnight just because COVID-19 has awashed our lives! Or do I?
This is my story of working from home. Do share yours!
Puja Chandra Nanda is presently working as the Digital Editor for RedTree Group Pte Ltd. She has been freelancing as a researcher, writer and editor for local and international publications for the past decade.