While it’s become a sore subject for many since the rise of COVID-19 and associated school and daycare closures, working from home with children around has been a part of my life since 2015, when my son was born. As with anything, choosing to do something yields very different results than being forced into it; I thought I would share a little of my experience, what I’ve found to work and not work, and how the flexibility of working for Seeq has enabled me to, at times, combine parenting and working.
I was fortunate to be the first recent college graduate to join Seeq, back in 2014. Not too much later, when my wife and I announced we were having a baby, I was stunned by the support of my colleagues and the company leadership (also literally stunned by the surprise baby shower they organized at our meetup). At the time the company had no formal parental leave policy, and was already very flexible with employees shifting working hours around, so I had some license to experiment.
One thing I had already realized about working at Seeq by that time was how much time I saved by not having to commute. As a relative newlywed, I started working when my wife left for her job, and stopped when she returned home, yielding me a few extra hours each week. When our son’s grandparents volunteered to watch him several days a week, we realized we wouldn’t need full-time daycare, and those few extra hours suddenly meant something different than an opportunity to leave early on a Friday afternoon.
In the end, I ended up being the sole caretaker of my son roughly 1 day a week from when he was 3 months old up until his sister was born in late 2019. It didn’t make work easier, but it gave me additional time with him in the early years that go by so quickly (true despite the cliche), made me a better father, and gave me the desire for others to have the same opportunities and flexibility that I did.
What one day a week of working with a little kid around actually looked like changed significantly over the years. Initially I was very much getting the hang of being a parent – bottle feeding, naptimes, just keeping an infant happy. My schedule often looked like a “4 9s” type schedule (that is, 4 days of 9 hours, and a fifth day of 4 hours) where the childcare day only had enough work time to attend internal meetings and answer emails or messages, while I worked longer hours on other days (often more like 9.5s or 10s).
Over time, though, my son and I developed a few rhythms that made those days something we looked forward to. I would work in the morning before he woke up and again during his nap; after each wake-up, if my office was sufficiently stocked with carpet-safe snacks and water, he would play with the toys in there for a while. He also enjoyed sitting on my lap and watching video calls or reading books, so I was usually able to participate in the standup and other meetings during “core hours” (Pacific time mornings here at Seeq). As he got older, he learned how to be more independent, play in the hallway or his room instead of my office, and also when he could interrupt me or when it was fair to ask me to be done working. Despite being a remote company, he grew to recognize my coworkers and they enjoyed seeing him pop up to say hi or show off a LEGO creation.
Of course, the pandemic eventually changed this arrangement a lot – my wife began working from home, we had two children to take care of, we lost all of our outside childcare, and when kindergarten started it was online-only. Setting all that aside, though, I loved the combination of parenting and working, by choice, one day each week. Of course, there’s a lot of different ways this can be done, so I’ll offer a few recommendations based on my experience for anyone who might be considering this kind of arrangement.
The only hard requirement I would say to make a hybrid parenting/working setup possible is the positive assent of one’s coworkers. Of course it’s important that your supervisor understands what you’ll be doing and how you’ll get your work done, but it’s your collaborators who might be in the position of having to wait an extra day to get your help, or needing to deal with interruptions, distractions, or schedule changes.
Of course, many more people have involuntarily experienced the need for this kind of flexibility. But if you’re choosing to do it on purpose, it really helps to be in a high trust environment, where people do their best to work as a team, take care of one another, care about quality of work rather than quantity of hours worked, encourage flexibility and asynchronous communication, and see the value in spending time with one’s family. I can only personally vouch for this at one employer.
Sometimes this kind of hybrid arrangement might come about because caretakers have different schedules – someone working an early or late shift, or grandparents that can help during part of the week, or school or daycare that ends before the work day is done. Regardless of the details, it’s very helpful to have an easy way to coordinate or leave notes for whoever else is taking care of your kids – whether that’s what they ate (or didn’t), when they slept (or didn’t), behavior things, or just simple logistics of who is expected to be where, and at what time. When possible, it’s very helpful to have the ability to “hand off” a kid for an important presentation or external meeting, or at least to schedule those things when another caretaker will be available.
For our family this really kicked into overdrive during the pandemic, with both parents home and online kindergarten taking place as well. We ended up with some time tracking spreadsheets, a bunch of daily alarms or reminders when certain things needed to happen, and a dedicated chat channel just to track the kids’ sleep schedules and meals. It’s better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate, and it’s sometimes very helpful to be able to check and realize that a child has a short fuse because they haven’t eaten all morning! More on that in a bit.
It may seem minor but I cannot overstate the importance of having a good wireless headset. In particular I would note two key requirements: long range (enough to walk anywhere in your home, at least), and an integrated hardware mute button (that can be used at long range).
While participating in meetings, particularly those that do not have a significant visual component, I have frequently:
- changed diapers
- retrieved snacks
- taken apart stuck LEGOs
- read (or at least turned pages for) books
- made and fed entire meals
Despite my frequent usage of the mute button, my coworkers still occasionally catch me on a hot mic asking my daughter if she wants a banana – what I have learned from this is that a banana almost always sounds appealing to software engineers. And besides using the wireless headset to be able to chase down a child who is about to test gravity in spectacular fashion, I also enjoy being able to fold laundry or tidy things up during some discussions where I might otherwise be distracted by a web browser or instant message.
A key aspect of successfully working while parenting, for me, has been to recognize which work tasks are doable with a child around, and which are not. In some ways this is similar to the idea of Maker’s Schedule vs Manager’s Schedule. Some tasks require deep concentration and uninterrupted focus – thinking through a design problem or finding the root cause of a tricky bug, for example. Attempting these tasks with a small child around is an exercise in frustration, and unfair for everyone involved. I try to do these things first thing in the morning, when kids are still asleep, or when they are napping or otherwise occupied.
On the other hand, if I am responding to emails or messages, writing unit tests, or doing a straightforward code review, it’s great to be able to respond to my kids to encourage, acknowledge, or help them. Playing on their own is definitely a skill that kids can learn, and in my experience they often just need occasional interaction, whether it is taking apart a wedged LEGO or appreciating what they have drawn; with that they will play happily for 30 minutes or more at a time.
In these respects, every job and every child are probably different; my advice would be to be purposeful about what you work on at what times, and experiment to see what is successful.
Snacks, snacks, snacks
Maybe it’s just my kids, but if they are hungry, there’s no making them happy; conversely if they are well fed, they are amazingly patient and self-sufficient. Besides making sure they get actual meals at the proper times, I owe hundreds of hours of work time to office-carpet-safe snacks such as bananas, tangerines, cheerios, raisins, and cheese sticks. And of course, sometimes parents need snacks too!
“Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.”― Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham
As with green eggs and ham, this kind of hybrid work style isn’t for everybody. It’s not even for me all the time – I have a strong appreciation for everyone who takes care of kids, as parents, childcare workers, or otherwise. However, this also doesn’t have to be the negative experience that so many have had to deal with in the pandemic. With the rise of remote work, and thoughtful, flexible employers and coworkers, it can be a true blessing to share some extra time with kids and break down some of the barriers between work and home life. I hope that in the future more people are as lucky as I have been to experience it.
Special thanks to my wife and children for helping make this all work.