It was a balmy day in May 2011 when it became perfectly clear that my working arrangement wasn’t built for the long haul. Mostly because I was working from the kitchen table in my parents’ Illinois home. I submit a log of Gchats with my sister as evidence of the conditions:
My mom is a goddamn saint, and my descent into madness is less about her being a natural social butterfly and more about my brain being unable to focus on more than one thing at a time without turning into a shithead (again, see the above for evidence).
Eight years later, I still work remotely full-time, so kitchen-table toiling from my childhood home continues to be a somewhat common occurrence. After all, without needing to physically be in an office, remote workers like me can game flight prices and traffic by heading home for the holidays a few days earlier than the cubicle-bound crowd. Thus, every year, thousands of parents’ homes in Small Town, USA, become quaint mom-and-pop WeWorks, co-working spaces filled with free coffee, snacks and spotty Wi-Fi.
As such, I’m currently locked in the bedroom where I grew up — partially because it’s the only room upstairs within reach of my parents’ Wi-Fi, and partially because it’s deeply ingrained in my parents’ brains to not enter said room without knocking first. Once I find a stopping point, I’ll head back downstairs and devote my undivided attention to whatever my mom’s friends are saying about crystals and Reiki on Facebook.
That said, my work-from-Mom’s process hardly feels efficient (it also strikes me as pretty anti-social). And so, I asked a few fellow employees in the ever-increasing remote workforce — as well as Staci McIntosh, an HR expert — for guidance in managing an influx of family office mates.
Find Free Time
One of the best things I can do, McIntosh begins, is to be less rigid with my time. When I work alone in my apartment, there’s a good chance I’ll sit in the same chair, all day, getting up only for bathroom breaks. But you can’t do that over the holidays without looking like Ebenezer Scrooge. “Take more breaks and plan for longer meal times,” McIntosh instructs. “If you know that the hour before dinner is the most popular time for family chit-chat, front-load working time for morning or late at night. They are your family, and they want to spend time with you!”
Cami Bird, a 29-year-old in marketing, has been working remotely for four years. She fully embraces the flexibility angle. “I get to travel when it’s cheaper because I can work anywhere, but I also have to work around other people’s schedules and Wi-Fi I’m not used to,” she explains. So when she visits her extended family “who live out just far enough for garbage internet,” she tries to cram in as much work as she can before everyone wakes up and starts using up the bandwidth.
“That’s usually very early in the morning,” she tells me. In fact, Bird wakes up at 4 a.m., pulls her laptop into bed and works until around 8 a.m. when everyone else starts stirring. “I try to end my day around 2 or 3 to spend time with family or friends and not feel like I’m just working in creative spaces for no reasons,” she adds.
As with most workspaces, McIntosh says communication is key. “Explain to your family that you have a project to do or that you’re on a deadline and that you can’t be distracted until you’re done.”
My fellow MEL remote colleague Joseph Longo admits that he could afford some more communication with his family back home in Chicago. “Working from home is the most joyous and stressful experience of the holidays,” he says.
The joyous part: “Everything is free — coffee, Wi-Fi, snacks. Plus, I can roll out of bed and log on without having to commute to work on a smelly subway car. There’s not a single finance bro in a blue gingham sight. It’s just me and my mom vibing together to Fleetwood Mac and Maggie Rogers as we co-work.”
As morning turns to afternoon, however, chaos ensues — especially around 3 p.m., Longo says. “One of my co-working family members will get distracted and look to take a break from work, and that’s when the WFH productivity stops completely. We’ll decide to crack a beer or get some snacks out, and suddenly, that article I was getting ahead on in the morning is now almost past deadline.”
This is where McIntosh says clear communication is crucial. Something like “a festive poster with ‘working’ and ‘break’ times on your door” should prevent familial interruptions. “Otherwise,” she adds, “a pair of high-quality, noise-canceling headphones will be a physical reminder to your family that ‘I’m working’ — and will keep their chatter out of your working brain.”
If push comes to shove, she says you should try suggesting a different activity for easily distracted family members. “Whether it’s playing cards, decorating cookies or going through old photos, if your relatives are occupied, they’re less likely to bother you.”
Take a Powder
If you absolutely have to, McIntosh advises going to the library or coffee shop so you can be as efficient as possible.
A change of scenery also typically comes with less baggage. “It’s hard to be inspired when you’re reminded that this was the desk where your first Myspace crush broke your heart by removing you from their Top 8, or when you scrolled through a Facebook album circa 2007 of a party you weren’t invited to,” says another of my remote colleagues, Hussein Kesvani, MEL’s London correspondent.
“In a lot of ways I’ve just reverted back to being 17 again,” Kesvani continues. “Mugs of coffee everywhere, empty bags of potato chips, half-drunk cans of soda. I even smoked a couple of cigarettes outside my bedroom window today.”
In terms of family, McIntosh says they don’t necessarily need to know the real reason you’re leaving — it is, after all, the holidays. “If you’re worried about your relatives being offended that you’ve left,” she says, “just tell them the library has research databases you can access from only their computers.”
Accept the Chaos
Back at the Myers’ Holiday Home Office, my sister Monica somehow always manages to do work at the kitchen table. “You can work and still be present with the family. The chit-chat is hard, but at least you can be there to enjoy the craziness,” she tells me.
But how does she do it without skittering off into an empty room upstairs to sit in solitude for hours on end? “My system is to take the ‘to-dos’ and break them into sections, and then attack the sections separately,” she explains, adding that prioritizing between certain tasks that need to be handled in the moment and tasks that can wait until after the holidays is key.
Ultimately, it’s all about efficiency — because the more efficient she is, the more time she can spend with yours truly. “The ability for me to put the computer away for a few hours and really understanding that work can wait has come with age,” she says. “I’ll always have work to do, but I have to put myself and family first, which makes me prioritize, focus and become efficient as fuck [or EAF] — and I’ve become the best EAF person when working from Mom and Dad’s house.”
Longo, wise beyond his years, echoes my sister’s sentiment. “To work from home to is accept the ruse that you’ll be much more productive than you ever are at an office. But it’s also a nice chance to be with family,” he says. “So do work when you can, but be present with the fam, and just make sure you’re not getting too far behind on your deadlines.”