The Remote Working Parent’s Survival Guide

Lessons in work-life balance for remote working parents *and* their companies.

I live in the Seattle area (which means that I’m up against some of the least affordable childcare in the USA), and my daughter — who was blessed to be born with impeccable health and an easy-going temperament — will turn one this week (😭).

My husband, Francisco, is from Chile and I am from Colorado. We’re essentially flying solo far up in the Pacific Northwest since there are no family members to rely on for long-term, short-term, date-night, or I-just-need-a-freaking-break childcare.

We both work full-time; I in our home office/kitchen/living room/rocking chair or a coworking space, and Francisco at his company’s headquarters which is exactly three miles from our house. We do not live in the “cool” part of Seattle, but are content to sacrifice vegan ice creameries and kombucha bars for a one-song-on-the-radio length commute that allows for extended family breakfasts and several quality hours of evening play-time.

One last thing about me: I work for Doist, a remote company that’s massively ahead of the curve in terms of work-life balance and forward-thinking policies for parents. Yes, that fact made the transition to becoming a working parent easier, but as I’ve discovered over the past year, being a parent is hard regardless. Being a working parent is really hard. Working remotely at home with kids is — you guessed it — also really damn hard.

I wanted to write this post to reflect on things remote working parents and their companies can do to make raising a family and doing great work possible.

Francisco, Lorenza, Brenna, Catalina & Amir at Doist’s most recent company retreat in Athens, Greece.

My daughter is napping now, so I could have 48 minutes or 3 hours to work on this draft. Let’s cut to the chase while we still can, shall we?

How we approach parenting at Doist

I’ve been with Doist since September, 2012 and became the very first mom on the team four years later. We didn’t even have a maternity or paternity leave policy in place until I shared the news with Amir and Allan in March of 2016. Soon after, we set out to create a leave policy that would be competitive with other tech companies and that would reflect our company’s preeminent values of both ambition and balance.

I reviewed 26 different maternity leave policies from companies like Dropbox (16 weeks), Optimizely (17 weeks), Microsoft (20 weeks), Buffer (12 weeks) and Amazon (8 weeks). The average paid time off given to new moms according to this research is 15.2 weeks.

Ultimately, we decided to go the extra mile and implemented the following PTO policy for new parents:

Full-time employees who have successfully passed their three-month trial period are eligible for Doist’s maternity and paternity leave:

  • Maternity leave: you’ll get to enjoy 18 blissful (though possibly sleepless) weeks of paid time off with your new bundle of joy. A portion of the 18 weeks may be used before the baby’s birth, or you can use them all after the baby is born.
  • Paternity/adoption leave: once your baby is born or your adopted child has come into your care, you’ll have 5 weeks of paid time off to spend with the newest (and cutest) addition to your family.

Correlation does not imply causation, but since announcing this policy, two other moms have given birth (including Catalina from the photo above!). Amir (Doist’s CEO and founder) and Neil (product marketer) have both become new fathers, and Gonçalo (CTO) is anticipating the birth of his first son in October. With 14 mini Doisters and one on the way, more and more of us are navigating the tricky balance between being a good parent and a good teammate.

Routines that prioritize completely unplugged family time

In addition to a generous maternity/paternity leave policy, as a fully remote company we also give each team member complete flexibility to work during the hours that suit him/her best. We believe that eight hours of effective work five days a week is more than enough to get everything done (we are in the productivity business, after all).

This means that we can craft our hours around our kids’ schedules. For example, this is how Panagiotis, a designer from Greece, generally organizes his day:

My day starts at 6:30AM and once I’m done with my morning work routine we all have breakfast together. By the time the girls are back from school, I’ve finished about 70% of my work and once they’ve completed their homework, my MacBook goes into sleep mode. That’s the ideal scenario or how I usually plan things… But they are kids, and this is life and there are days that things don’t go as planned.

Panagiotis in his home office with his daughters, Stamatina & Elena

As Panagiotis so kindly reminds us, we can try to anticipate things, but at the end of the day, kids are kids, life is life and, as parents, we have to be ready for plans to get derailed. For example, this is how I attempt to structure my Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays:

  • 7:00AM– Some roulette wheel of waking up, cuddling with baby, showering, enjoying a family breakfast, and/or walking the dog.
  • 9:00–10:30AM– Non-cognitive work
  • Review all Twist threads and direct messages, comments on shared Todoist projects, and work email. Mark tons of things as unread to review later during deep work time.
  • Start taking action on any tasks that require minimal concentration/mental effort while the baby enjoys some (screen free) play time.
  • There are lots and lots of interruptions during this time, there’s no way around it, and that’s ok. Keep reading to learn some methods to deal with this inevitability.
  • 10:30AM– Baby naps. This means deep work time in my home office.
  • 12:30PM– Lunch & “commute.”
  • 1:00–4:00PM– Arrive to the coworking space with on-site childcare where I deep work like there’s no tomorrow.
  • 4:30–5:00PM– Arrive home and continue to deep work like there’s no tomorrow until the baby wakes up from her play- and car ride-induced nap.
  • 8:00PM– Baby’s bedtime. At this point, I’m usually so mentally/physically drained that I never plan to work after she goes to bed. I use this time to rest and recharge by doing sports, gardening, reading or cooking (or occasionally falling asleep to Parks and Rec on Netflix, let’s be honest).

Piotr, from Doist’s Android team, lives in Turkey and his son, Deniz, is almost 1 year old. Like myself, he is navigating the challenges of sharing a home — and therefore a home office — with a little creature whose mobility seems to multiply by the minute. “When he was more stationary it was quite easy to work from home. I just went to my room, closed the door and worked.” *sigh* The good old days.

Now, he’s running around the house and screams if something isn’t the way he wants it. Working from home has become more difficult. I still try and work from my room but it’s very hot in the summer in Turkey– closing the door isn’t an option so… I’m using pillows to make a barricade. The room is an L shape so he can’t see me– he still knows I’m there, but because he doesn’t see me, he’s able to calm down faster. Still, a couple of times a day he tries to “jump” over the barricade, but he hasn’t succeeded (yet).

Don’t worry, Piotr’s wife is also home during the day 😂

Omar, part of Doist’s Support team, lives in Jamaica and has one son, Sam-Rojé, who is four years old. Before joining Doist, Omar worked as a manager in a corporate office. “I was required to wake up every day at 6:30am and in zombie-like fashion slip into the routine of packing the baby bag, fighting both sleep and traffic, dropping my son off at Grandmas (FedEx style) and making a mad dash to get to that all-important sign-in roster at my job,” he recalls.

Now, he says, “the freedom and flexibility of remote work allow me the privilege of purposefully approaching the compartments of each day in a way that best fits my life and allows for my best work.”

Omar’s day starts with meditation and family time which allow him to address his tasks feeling properly calibrated. He begins by checking in to see if there are any outstanding issues, and then organizes and prioritizes what else needs to be done and when.

“I typically front-load the day by taking care of collaborative tasks and catching up on the need-to-knows. Once that’s done, I’m able to “eat my frogs” and knock off some quick wins so that I build momentum to do several hours of deep work during the afternoon,” he adds.

After “emerging from beast-mode” and before transitioning back into family time, Omar implements his “magic dad trick”: taking a 15–30 minute power nap right before picking Sam-Rojé up from school. “This does wonders for my energy and engagement level for our playtime and has been a glorious boost to our bonding times and his own personal growth.”

Omar’s son, Sam-Rojé, helping him with support tickets from his home office.

Kids and meetings: An unpredictable combination

Though, at Doist, we prioritize being in “beast-mode” and doing deep work over having meetings or getting stuck in the never-ending conveyor belt of group chat, sometimes meetings are inevitable.

As you may recall from the now infamous BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly, video conferences and kids are, well, an unpredictable combination. Luckily, Doist is not in the live broadcasting business and our conference calls are far more relaxed. So relaxed, even, that Allan, our COO, not only extends an invitation to me for a call, but also to my daughter.

Admittedly, though, it can be stressful when you’re trying to have a conference call and your baby is pulling your hair and/or crying and/or trying to eat fistfulls of dog food.

Luckily, we try and make sure meetings are as efficient as possible by prepping everything in a Todoist project prior to the call. Using the marketing team as an example, every team member has a specific “One-on-One” project which is divided by things to discuss and action items. This way, we know exactly what’s on the schedule and what needs to get done after each meeting has concluded.

Sanity Savers #1: Apps and devices

There are a handful of apps and products that can help remote working parents maximize the time in our days and the effort we put into our tasks. (Please feel free to share other recommendations in the comments below!).

  • Relax Melodies app: Even though she’s almost a year old, I still use white noise to help my baby sleep better and longer. Lefteris, from Doist’s Web Dev team seconds this recommendation, saying that it worked for both of his sons, helping them calm down and fall asleep, even when nothing else seemed to stop their crying or colics. Like Lefteris, I’m convinced that white noise helps prolong my baby’s naps by blocking annoying noises (espresso machine, dog, Roomba, Amazon deliveries, etc) which in turn helps me get more work done. Plus, I always leave the app running in Do Not Disturb mode inside her room while she sleeps so that I’m not distracted by notifications while I’m working.
  • Todoist: I know you’ll think I’m that person for recommending their own app, but even if it’s not Todoist you use, your life as a remote working parent will crumble faster than a teething cookie without some thoroughly established organizational tactics. Panos and his wife, for example, “use Todoist to plan [their] super market needs, household chores, and to manage [their] finances.” Personally, I have a “Lorenza” project that includes all tasks related to the baby, including her 1st birthday party planning which is just one of several sub-projects. In addition to specific household/family projects, one of my favorite Todoist configurations is the “today @ work” filter which only displays my tasks due “today” with the @work label. This way, I don’t get distracted by all the other millions of things that I need to do and can focus 100% on work tasks when I’m at work.
  • Freedom app: Assuming that you have the willpower of an average human being, you’ll want to install the Freedom app on your phone or desktop. It’ll block websites, apps and even the entire internet if your attention span is that fragile. You can schedule recurring “freedom sessions” that will, for example, automatically block all social media apps on your phone from 9AM-5PM on weekdays.
  • TinyCam Monitor Pro + Android Wear Watch + IP Cam: “This combination allows me to check on my son right from my smart watch without disturbing his sleep or my work zone unnecessarily,” recommends Omar. Amir, one of Doist’s newest parents, suggests this Motorola baby monitor because it’s not connected to his phone. “I know there are some monitors that work via the mobile phone, but it’s convenient to have the monitor on all the time so you can quickly glance at the baby. I can code and look at the baby at the same time!”
  • Jaybird x3 wireless headphones: “I was using Shure SE215 sound isolating headphones but switched to Jaybird x3 since they are wireless. The noise isolation is almost the same but having no cable is so much more comfortable. They block the “normal” noise when the baby plays but if he screams I can still hear it (but that’s OK because I want to know when something is wrong). Also, I only use those headphones for work so they have become a signal for my brain that it’s time to focus,” recommends Piotr.
  • Kidco Safety gate: “Not to take anything away from the might of Piotr’s pillow-fortress, I would like to add the Kidco Safety gate to this list for the home office. This one is by far the most configurable and it works equally great on stairs as well as hallways. Installation is a breeze… and so is de-installation, regardless of if you are mounting on concrete or wood,” suggests Omar.

Sanity Savers #2: Tactics for focused work

You can download all the app stores’ apps and set up the world’s most high-tech, gadget-filled home office, but if you aren’t mindful of your work habits, your success as a remote working parent will suffer. A lot. And fast.

As a parent, your time and energy are your most precious resources. When you’re working you need to be as efficient as possible so you can truly disconnect when it comes time for family. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your work hours while working from home:

  • Snooze all your notifications. Seriously. Do it now. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that those of us who work from our computers get distracted every 10.5 minutes, and that getting distracted by calls or push notifications can decrease your IQ by as much 10 points. When you’re trying to polish a feature or design a landing page during baby’s nap time, do you really need to pause to find out that Sally Sue Liked Your Instagram Photo? Or that your neighbor is selling their reupholstered sofa on Nextdoor? No, I’d venture to say that you do not.
  • Prioritize deep work. If you’re not yet familiar with the concept, deep work is when you work on difficult tasks that draw upon all your mental reserves and require singular focus. It is your greatest competitive advantage, and also by far your greatest challenge when you have kids. In fact, when I asked people what they wanted to know about working remotely and having kids, four of the five responses were about dealing with interruptions. Getting into a deep work state is not easy when your kids can casually saunter into your office any time or when you can hear your spouse and baby joyfully reading books in the next room. But when you snooze your notifications and use apps like Twist that allow you to disconnect to focus on your tasks, flowing into deep work can be a little bit easier. The better you are at maximizing your productivity, the more time you have to enjoy with your family. The payoff of practicing this philosophy is priceless.
  • Batch your tasks. Taking action on similar tasks in a specific period of time is also a helpful tactic for staying focused and getting more done. The most notorious example of batching tasks is with email — many productivity experts recommend processing your email inbox only two or three times a day. This helps you power through your responses and ensures that you won’t be sidetracked by incoming email throughout the day. As a remote working parent, I batch my household related tasks during my lunch break. This way, I know they won’t be dangling over my head as a potential distraction when I return to work. I’ll also respond to similar-themed Twist threads and messages in batches so that my brain doesn’t get taxed by switching between different subjects.
  • Know your mental and physical energy patterns. Working remotely affords the option to modify your daily schedule according to your energy levels. In fact, as Omar puts it, “working remotely allows me to deep dive into work when my body and mind is best suited for it and then fully disconnect to be fully present as Mr. HusbanDad until bedtime, when I can do my end of day work review and get things in order for another purpose-driven day.” Roman, Doist’s Head of Web Dev, agrees: “there’s nothing more disappointing than a tired daddy barking around instead of playing and enjoying life along with his kid, so I always try to keep a bit of extra energy for having some genuine fun at home.” It’s worth becoming intimately aware of your personal patterns, molding your daily activities around them, and applying these work philosophies to get the most out of both your work and your family time.
  • Establish your work territory. As a working mom whose partner isn’t at home during the day, the concept of boundaries unfortunately doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, a recurring piece of advice from dads I spoke with was to designate a dedicated work space. “I’ve tried a lot of things, some have worked, some haven’t, and I think my most important suggestion is to be able to close some door and work in isolation,” says Lefteris. Panagiotis agrees: “As Elena and Stamatina grew older, I was forced to move my office out of the house. I converted my garage to an office and found my peace because it doesn’t have an internal connection to the house. It was an easy decision: Either I’ll become the worst dad ever for asking them to be quiet all the time or I’ll distance myself long enough so their playtime doesn’t affect my work concentration and I still get a chance to be with them every minute of the day!” Even if you have limited space, you can still find some creative ways to incorporate a workspace into your home here and here.
  • Find a cowork with on-site childcare. As The Global Workspace Association most accurately puts it, “On-site childcare coworking spaces is the Holy Grail for working parents.” Sadly, though, due to regulations and licensing, coworking spaces with on-site childcare are few and far between. Here in Seattle, there are only two of around 40 coworking offices that offer on-site childcare. As luck would have it, there’s one within driving distance from where I live and, to put it frankly, I wouldn’t survive without it. While my daughter plays with trusted childcare professionals, I’m able to get into a deep work state with the reassurance that she is having a blast and being cared for. You can find a short list of other cowork offices with on-site childcare here.
  • When all else fails, play PomoBaby. Have you heard of the Pomodoro productivity method? The basic premise is that you do short sprints of intense, highly focused work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break (repeat this four times, and then take a 30 minute break). During my morning work routine, I’ve discovered that the PomoBaby (© pending) is a pretty effective way to get some easy things done while also not making my daughter feel completely neglected. Generally, she’s a relatively independent gal, but I can sense when she starts to feel ignored. To deal with this, I go about doing some of my non-cognitive work tasks while she plays with her toys, then I take a break and give her my absolutely undivided attention. We’ll read a book, or go pick fruit from the garden, or have a snack. So far, this is working for us — maybe PomoBaby can work for you too :)

Timur enjoying Doist developer Roman’s undivided attention.

Considering that, on average, women around the world have 2.42 children each and that, by the year 2020, 50% of the global workforce is projected to work remotely, parenting while working remotely is bound to become a hot topic.

As the Doist family grows, we look forward to sharing more insight and advice about this new work lifestyle. Please let us know if you have any additional advice to contribute or questions for our team! We’ll be happy to keep the conversation going in the comments below.