Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

What parents can learn from the COVID-19 work apocalypse


Published on April 01, 2020

Recently I was taking a break from what felt like a nonstop barrage of work emails and video meetings for a brief walk with my nineteen-month old daughter.

It was my first time out of the house in three days—perhaps my third total since the COVID-19-inspired distributed work experiment had kicked off in earnest. As we reached our house, two passersby courteously walked into the street a virus-safe distance around us, but I could hear they were talking about work. “I’ve been working from home a couple days a week, so I’m used to this,” one said. “I’ve been working on my setup. It’s totally comfortable.”

Parents of young children recognize in a flash those who are either non-parents or parents already on the far-off shores of offspring self-sufficiency. Their concerns and priorities seem vaguely familiar and yet totally alien. Working on my setup. I shook my head.

An unscientific survey of colleagues and friends finds parents of young kids in utter chaos during this experiment in which work, school, and childcare are all colliding at home. For example, here’s my own current “setup”:

  • I work in a pile of laundry. This is no exaggeration—my home office is approximately three square feet of the laundry room, the only available space in the house not claimed by our toddler. My chair is wedged in between piles, and I’ve long since lost track of the system separating clean from dirty.
  • I whisper on all calls and video meetings between 12:30 and 2:30pm so I don’t wake our daughter, who has always been a light napper. I often fail and wake her anyway. 
  • At virtually all other hours, meetings and attempts at focused work are overrun by a cacophony of exuberant discoveries and/or tantrums.
  • I use bluetooth headphones for video meetings so I don’t annoy the rest of the family and to give myself a chance of hearing the meeting. But bluetooth as a general rule connects to my computer only after attempting to connect to every other device in the house; I try to join meetings early so I can run around the house turning off other devices’ bluetooth in succession until the headphones make themselves available. I am usually late.
  • Work and life constantly interrupt each other, and chase each other into any remaining hours of the day. Breakfast is usually accompanied by a Slack message or urgent-seeming email, focused work is invariably punctuated by urgent diapers and falls (as well as happy breakthroughs like new words), and the night is often soaked up by the work that never got done.

For parents living through the COVID-19 work apocalypse, the “tips and tricks” articles sprouting everywhere on the internet about how to “optimize” your remote-work life can feel laughably out of reach. Things like time-boxing your schedule and setting up a dedicated office space seem about as likely as introducing some levitation into your ergonomic strategy. I live in a small house, but I’m lucky to have the laundry room. Others parents at Dropbox have described how, to them, “video conference tips and tricks” means using virtual backgrounds to hide the sheer destruction their kids are wreaking just feet behind their talking heads.

Beyond the moment-to-moment chaos of this new distributed-workforce reality, parents may feel that in trying to juggle the needs of home and work they’re failing at both.

Beyond the moment-to-moment chaos of this new distributed-workforce reality, parents may feel that in trying to juggle the needs of home and work they’re failing at both. Or at least that they’re not as present in either arena as they should be. Sure, you can put on headphones when you’re trying to focus on work—but that doesn’t stop you feeling guilty about being out of earshot in case you’re needed, or to keep tabs on learning for those now juggling homeschooling on top of their workloads. You can set hard-and-fast rules about work hours in order to focus on being with family, but when you’re at home with a young child all day, nights can feel like your only shot to get anything meaningful done for your job.  Yes, there’s the silver lining of seeing your kids more and possibly catching more of those milestone moments. But the balance between work and life can feel like an un-winnable tug of war.

I’m lucky in ways far more profound than my laundry room: I have a job that enables me to work from home, at a company that allows generous flexibility of working styles and doesn’t mandate constant availability on a chat app. I have a partner currently dedicated to childcare full-time. I’m also male, and the disappointing truth is that, as the New York Times points out, in aggregate women are shouldering the challenges of this time disproportionately more than men. Comparatively, I’ve got it extremely easy. Which makes the scope of this mass distributed work challenge humbling. If I’m having this much trouble adapting, what are others going through?

Of course, some people make it look easy. My neighbor is a lawyer. When I ran into her outside and asked how she was coping with home-schooling her two kids on top of her always-daunting caseload, she seemed downright buoyant as she described a successful science experiment in which they’d all just made it rain inside a Mason jar.

But this seems to be the exception. The prevailing sentiment among parents lucky enough to keep working during this time seems to be dumbfounded overwhelm. Israeli mom Shiri Kenigsberg Levi’s viral video articulated what many felt: “if corona doesn’t kill us, distance learning will.” Shonda Rhimes was ready to give teachers a pay raise to one billion dollars per year after homeschooling her kids for exactly one hour and 11 minutes.

But beyond a new appreciation for teachers and all the people and systems that normally go into making our daily routines function, perhaps there are other positive lessons we can learn from this time to bring back to the office whenever things return to normal. (Or even if we’re stuck at home forever?) 

The 2017 viral video in which the children of a BBC guest correspondent barged into his home office in the middle of a live news broadcast looks downright pedestrian by today’s standards. The distributed reality today’s office workers are living through has normalized these kinds of foibles. Without the sanitized neutral ground of an office in which to engage, we’ve become more intimately familiar with our colleagues—with their homes, pajamas, pets, and children. Virtual background or not, we see each other more unvarnished and more vulnerable. 

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe losing access to the mask of invincibility many of us try to wear around the office will help us accept ourselves and others as only human. Maybe it’ll help make us less competitive and insecure, and foster more empathy in our working culture. Maybe it’ll even help us spend less time worrying about appearances and more time focused on meaningful priorities.

It’s hard to reconcile the pervasive notion from parents that it feels nearly impossible to get anything done under COVID with the equally pervasive sentiment that remote work is the way of the future. True, we’re living an extreme version right now. In the vision set out in trend pieces about the future of distributed workforces, our children aren’t all at home blasting manic xylophone sessions in the middle of our video meetings. But this moment is underscoring how we depend on boundaries and discrete spaces for working and thinking that are highly vulnerable to disruption. In reality, those boundaries have been under attack in recent years both at home and at work as the number of potential distractions from open office plans and new technologies pile up.

One hallmark of the COVID distributed work phenomenon is that, whether you’re a fan of remote work or not, we’re all in this together. That solidarity isn’t likely to last. Already there seems to be growing consensus that COVID will change working culture indelibly and that optional remote work will continue for many long after it’s safe to return to the office. It’ll be interesting to see if the intimacy this moment inadvertently ushered in continues to feel like a welcome change or a distracting nuisance when some of us are dialing in from the board room and some in our PJ’s with a cat sitting on our head. Either way, perhaps this was just the push we all needed to re-examine how we work, to find space to think and time to shut off.