Kids, meetings and laundry – The psychology of working from home with children under quarantine

Flexible work hours, desk sharing and home office are quite familiar to us by now. Anyone who has worked from home for at least a day with a baby or a child on “sick-leave” is familiar with the idea of having their work life invaded by a hungry, runny-nosed, jumpy or curious kid. However, the current state of emergency caused by the coronavirus is different. Column by Luca Frankó, psychologist.

In 2020, working in an office no longer means that people sit down at their desk at 8 a.m. and get up to go home at 4 p.m. The time and space of our professional lives has expanded quite a lot. Flexible work hours, desk sharing and home office are quite familiar to us by now. Anyone who has worked from home for at least a day with a baby or a child on “sick-leave” is familiar with the idea of having their work life invaded by a hungry, runny-nosed, hyperactive, or curious kid. However, the current state of emergency caused by the coronavirus is different. It’s not just a temporary arrangement parents working from home have to survive for a couple of days, but a systematic change we must implement for an uncertain amount of time – one that may take its toll on productivity and performance. As we can see, this is not a classic working from home situation – a more fitting name might be working under quarantine, as the psychological aspects of both situations can be very different.

Working under quarantine with children: advantages and disadvantages

Working in our private space is not a new phenomenon, just think of our farming ancestors or 20th century artists. However, a large number of people doing intellectual work from home has only become a commonality in the 21st century. These models and technologies are well-known to most of today’s workplaces, yet mass migration of entire work forces to their living rooms is a strikingly new phenomenon.

According to a survey by Eurostat from last year, just 5% of the global workforce worked solely from home. Even though taking an occasional day to work from home is becoming more and more popular, working only from home is rather necessity.  That’s because a major advantage of working from home lies in the autonomy and the freedom of choice. People appreciate the opportunity to decide where to do whatever they need to do.  That’s because a major advantage of working from home is the autonomy and the freedom to make your own choices. People appreciate the opportunity to decide where to do whatever it is they need to do. For example, some might prefer to complete tasks that require more concentration at home instead of in a busy open office.

However, under quarantine, this feeling of autonomy is lost almost entirely. This time we haven’t made the decision to withdraw into our homes with our files and reports. We were rather forced to stay there while it turned into a noisy indoor playground and we must prove ourselves as employees, parents, or even teachers simultaneously.  Sure, the amount of time and nerves saved not having to commute is great. However, classic cases of working from home still carry the disadvantages of being less structured in both time and space, throwing off the work-life balance, and decreasing the frequency of professional interaction. Unfortunately, these disadvantages are heightened while working from home under quarantine.

via GIPHY

This situation not only takes a toll on our professional life, but even more so on our personal and family life. Of course, this all is for our collective interests, which means all we can attempt to do is make the most of a difficult situation.

The Magic Triangle: environment – tasks – expectations

One of the biggest difficulties modern humans must face is having the control over our own lives taken away from us. Having to work from home under quarantine is such an example, but it is important to keep in mind the reasons for this sacrifice (protecting our own health, keeping the elderly and the health care system alive, mitigating an economic crisis). Remembering our reasons for enduring such hardship helps us regain our experience of control.

At the same time, our true control lies on micro levels, specifically in our ability to manage our physical and social environment, our tasks, and our expectations concerning how we complete those tasks.

Physical environmental factors

According to authors Di Martino and Wirth, the most essential factors relating to the physical environment when working from home are the following:

  • workspace and private space should be separated as much as possible;
  • windows in workspace should face the street;
  • adequate lighting and ventilation must be arranged.

If possible, these factors should be taken into account when choosing a room or space to work in at home. It may also be beneficial to come up with routines like getting dressed instead of working in pajamas, in order to keep our private and professional lives separate.

Social environmental factors

The question of our social environment, in this case the people and family members we share a household with, is much more complex. Whether both parents live together, whether they must both work from home, whether one of them is left without a job or whether one of them is away serving in health care, for example, are all important aspects. Yet these scenarios still only cover the classic nuclear family – there are countless other familial models that must be taken into account.

Naturally, the number of children and their age will have a large impact on our potential productivity. As parents of small children, it is important that we adapt to their needs and daily routines, as they are not yet able to adapt to ours. However, sticking to a comfortable routine is recommended, such as engaging in outdoor activities every morning. Starting the day with a game of catch or rollerblading is not only good for us, but will also calm children down and increase the chances of an afternoon nap.

With small children, we can schedule our working hours during naptime, and perhaps take turns watching the kids with another adult, especially when our tasks require longer periods of uninterrupted concentration. Any other amount of time when the kids are occupied with a fun game or coloring book should be considered as a bonus – it’s nice to have it, but should not be expected! We recommend saving the “story tablet” with the BOOKR Class app for mandatory meetings.



School-aged children are easier to deal with, because they are far more independent and can be left alone. Still, this new era of digital learning can put a lot of pressure on parents. A reliable, but flexible routine is important to have with bigger children as well as it helps us plan our days. Having meals together at a certain time, and not letting them sleep until noon might be a good idea, as it will keep their biological clocks intact.

No matter how old our child is, we should do our best to explain to them that this time, staying at home will be a little bit different. It’s not a long weekend, or a vacation. Parents still have to work and children still have to study. In order to keep our roles from clashing and to avoid feeling guilty, it’s important that we make the current situation clear, both in society and in our homes.

Type of job

How to effectively organize working from home under quarantine also depends on the type of job we have, whether our work depends on our creativity or meticulousness. This new environment may inspire creativity, but may not be the best for filling out important Excel sheets with a deadline.

Therefore, we must accept that our potential productivity is not only up to us. Even so, it’s important that we consciously assess our situation and remain aware of our realistic achievements and limitations. We shouldn’t expect less of ourselves, but neither should we expect more than the situation allows. If we are a single parent living in a one-bedroom apartment with three small children,  it’s unlikely that the next few weeks will be the highlight of our careers, at least not in a short run. In the case that we have help or are able to effectively organizing our time and physical environment, our career may in fact take a new, more exciting turn in the next couple of weeks. Important intellectual work and new, original ideas are often born in isolation, or perhaps we suddenly have time to chase our unforgotten dreams.

We may not be in control of things on a grand scale, but we can do our best to stay in control of our lives on a small scale. If we consider the long-term implications of the current situation, which is arguably the only way we should consider it, these new and very specific challenges may lead to us gaining some new skills. Our ability to be creative, multitask and adapt to new situations will surely be heightened in the near future. Furthermore, this turn of events may encourage unexpected professional partnerships and exciting social initiatives and even awaken new perspectives which will contribute to a better post-quarantine world.

Bibliography

  • Audi Hungária HR (2019): Atipikus foglalkoztatási forma – home office. Available: https://bit.ly/2YFPQrF (downloaded: 2019. 06. 08.)
  • Di Martino, V., & Wirth, L. (1990): Telework: A New Way of Working and Living. International Labour Review, 129 (5), 529-554.
  • Eurostat (2019): Employed persons working from home as a percentage of the total employment, by sex, age and professional status (%). Available: https://bit.ly/2XBLPmW (downloaded: 2019. 06. 09.)
  • Forbes (2017): How to design a healthy home office that increases productivity. Available: https://bit.ly/2I2BxY5. (downloaded: 2019.06.09.)
  • Luca, F. (2019): Az új generációs irodák környezetpszichológiai vonatkozásai, Doctorate Dissertation, ELTE Doctoral School of Psychology

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