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Cracking Work From Home as a Dad

Nest-Ed - Cracking Work From Home as a Dad

BY MANIDIPA MANDAL

 

The thing you quickly realize as a hands-on new father in India is that no one at work wants to know—or even to imagine— that you change diapers in the middle of the night and thus arrive at work after a dangerously groggy commute. Paternity leave is not yet a thing that the typical corporate job profile advertises, or indeed, allows. So what’s a dad who insists on being an equal, involved parent to do?

For some (many!), it is easiest to fall back and adopt the status quo: diaper changes and nighttime parenting are a mother’s job, as are meals and household chores. After all, she is the one with the maternity leave—paid, even!—whether or not her career growth can stand the setback. For a brave few, it is the motivation they need to sheepishly ask about working from home to support their family—usually still a motion denied in most parts of the country. It is only in the start-up, especially tech-foremost, professions that WFH dad sounds like a normal role for a colleague, and they aren’t so numerous even in the supposedly progressive urban spaces.

What the non-traditional brave-hearts all agree on: it is not an easy shift, literally or figuratively. "Having a child does have an impact on routines with respect to home or office, and in some cases, the home office," says Gaurav Jain, assistant VP of lean digital transformation at a leading MNC in the NCR. However, they also agree that the rewards are unprecedented. If you are an expecting parent and have questions, or are considering this career move as a young parent yourself, read on for reassurance and strategies to make it work. 

Why would I ever take this risk?

Well, some folks do it because they are in an equal relationship with the mother and she is ready to regroup and move up the ladder after her maternity ends and the youngling is off toddling further from mum, so it’s time for dad to take his turn in the ring. 

Others do it because with a new baby already stretching the finances, it just makes financial sense to minimize the outlay of a working wardrobe and the fuel bills, not to mention the time wasted in commuting when you could be bonding with the baby. 

For yet more, it’s a logistical decision to forgo the joys of the water cooler to take a nap when baby does instead, allowing you to be in a front-row seat for their fastest-growing years, to bond with the newborn who was perhaps born at their mother’s ancestral home or at least in an OT that denied dads entry. Several dads seem to make their own makeshift paternity accommodation in the Indian business context this way, returning to the office cubicle once their child outgrows toddlerhood and starts formal schooling.

Most importantly, if you are a two-income family by necessity, WFH is less risky for a father’s future career graph than it is for a mother. Bosses across genders tend to assume any woman making a ‘family first’ choice is liable to jump ship or underperform because deprioritizing work; the same assumption is not commonly made of men, as it is assumed all men are keen on their careers  by default even if they say ‘family first’. They therefore regard women as a bad investment when they ask to WFH, but are less likely to pull back from promoting or handing responsibilities to a man. The sexism is, yes, real. Or perhaps you’re the father who is the financially junior partner in your marriage, so it is overall less risky for the family for you to work from home while she continues to prioritize her career?  

For entrepreneurs, like the founding partners of The Nestery (a couple with a 5 year old), the choice is often about economizing with available resources until the business grows enough to merit a dedicated factory/office space.  

 

Will it kill my social life and my cachet at work, though?

The honest answer to this is that it depends on your profession. People are less likely to look at a WFH Dad askance in the entrepreneurial context—Nestery co-founder TSV vouches for the fact that in India, the startup sector is already flouting enough conventional parameters, so what’s another one? 

TSV opted to give up his day job and work full-time from home to grow the business with co-founder and spouse Vaishnavi, who had helmed the ship alone a while. Friends were supportive, he recalls: ‘Most of them are well aware of the startup life--they understand the prioritization of resources. The couple opted to work out of a makeshift home office for now, being reluctant to allocate more resources to a dedicated office space at this fledgling stage, where those resources could fuel growth and exploration instead.] More importantly, they understand that WFH is real work, and often, it’s more work than when you go to an office.’ 

Similarly, as a doctor or lawyer, a chartered accountant or a journalist, you are far less likely to meet resistance than in a corporate managerial role, sales & marketing, advertising, hospitality, etc.

That said, as Jain points out, it can be doable in client-facing and corporate industries as well—he has been a part of an industry which involves people interaction, managing teams, and clients based in Western countries as well, which translates into working odd hours in India. Currently, he flexi-times, going into office early and then picking up his little girl from daycare and continuing the rest of the workday from home, complete with evening snacks and such until his spouse returns from a more traditional office job. Jain, who sometimes worked from home even before the baby came along, actually used to do this to help with taking calls at odd hours (IST) or to prepare for a big presentation.

Will I really be able to work as well? What changes will I need to make to my workday? 

If you have worked in one of those super-traditional offices where you are expected to turn up at 9:30am (sharp) and leave by 6:30 (pm or am the next day!), you will likely feel a little unnerved by the newfound flexibility. Where does your day start and where does it end? Where does parenting pause for work?

It helps if your company is as supportive as Jain's—he doesn't even need to ask to work from home. But then, he also voluntarily asked to switch to a role that accommodates a WFH lifestyle (the position he held as a new father in the same company did not). It also helps that his job does not tie him to a desktop (if yours does, discuss with your manager the possibility of using a laptop with the necessary security barriers set up). Then again, technology notwithstanding, if you have to drop off your children to school or pick up a child from daycare like he does, you may find yourself missing some meetings, having to reschedule or catch up, no matter how important they are.

Technically, most WFH dads find the ‘workday’ an oxymoron where the day is actually longer though the working hours are fewer. You are exchanging the exhaustion and time of a commute for chores at home and parenting. “At the end of each day, I’m always more tired than I used to be after coming home from office,” Vishwanathan says. If you’re starting your own business after years of working for a larger entity, the stakes are higher—you invariably feel the pressure to put in more hours and take on more responsibilities. So block out your hours and set boundaries for yourself, just like you do for your child: 

  • Set a routine that works for everybody at home: this helps create a quasi-office environment. Be guided by your child’s nap schedule, if they are young. There is nothing more frustrating than having a suddenly awake toddler wailing through your work calls.
  • Schedule a check-in time with your colleagues and boss: this can look like a morning huddle, a post-lunch catch-up and an EOD review, or one-hour slots morning and late afternoon, depending on your professional commitments. The medium can be an email, a call, Slack/Whatsapp chatter, or even a text message enumerating things to do and things done.
  • Use video calls for meetings if at all possible, even if you might end up with a baby on-screen; your visible body language really does help communication.
  • Also discuss a prioritization system so they know when they should reach out regardless of naptime!
  • Remove distractions like the TV (or resort to noise-cancelling headphones if you work at your dining table). 
  • Silence notifications on your screen, and put the phone on vibration mode (helps avoid attracting the child’s attention and waking the napping baby—eek!—as well).
  • Alternate between relatively mindless and focused tasks based on your family’s schedule. No point trying to do creative work at the height of afternoon cacophony; use that time for admin chores like answering routine mails, cleaning up inboxes, skimming blogs and newsletters instead. 

Secondly, many find the hours and days blur into a continuum as the space-time boundaries of swiping in and swiping out no longer apply. So create your own physical boundaries. This is easier if you have the space and other resources to set up a dedicated office space. 

  • Dress for success. Yes, you might work in pajamas before your child wakes and after their bedtime; but also make it a point to dress up from X o’ clock to Y o’ clock. (Helps your child to see you are in work mode too.) This need not be a full formal suit; you can now get away with dressing for a Sunday brunch with friends, every day!
  • Start your day at a fixed ballpark time, based on the family’s morning routine. So maybe shower and dress after breakfast, and ‘go to work’.
  • Set up ‘tidy up’ alarms (should help your child too!)—clear the decks at the day’s end if you work at the dining table or the drawing room; if you have a desk to yourself, organize it for tomorrow before you ‘leave’.

 

What will people say? (And what should you tell them?) 

For most families, the father’s decision to work from home is welcomed with great enthusiasm by their partner, at least. As TSV recalls, “Any concern was more around leaving a well-paying job to start a business.” At best, some mothers may feel a little conflicted about giving up sole control of the homestead, but equal and—this is critical—tidy participation in household chores, including childcare, convinces them readily.

There is, Jain acknowledges, a perception among some people that you are relaxing with a beer if you are working from home and not really productive. For colleagues, relatives and neighbours who interpret WFH to mean at home in the old-fashioned English sense, set up a sign on the door and put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode during working hours (and the children’s naptimes and parent-child hours!); let people message you instead or tinker with your phone settings so that only calls from specific contacts are allowed to interrupt you.

 

How should I negotiate work/play boundaries with my (older) child? 

Who here hasn’t seen the video of kids walking in on a live televised interview on BBC News? Click here.

It can be hard for older children—preschool to tween—to accept that their father is right there but unavailable to them  at all times. Even if they are used to an occasionally busy mother, gender stereotypes are ingrained so early and pervasively that they may struggle to acknowledge that a father at home is not on ‘holiday’.

Routine helps, as with everything else when it comes to young children’s self-regulation, and clear, age-appropriate communication: 

  • To start with, discuss the new schedule. Emphasize what stays the same, and for younger children, define your work hours in terms of the day’s rhythms. So you might say you will drop them to school like before and their mother/grandparent/schoolbus will pick them up like before; but you will be waiting at home for bathtime and lunch before their nap. For preschoolers and early grade school, you may need to emphasize their afternoon playtime/quiet time is your work time, and you can come with them to the park only in the evening. Clock hours have little meaning to the young—even when they can read the time!
  • Decide on closed-door and open-door hours—and honour the open door, as you would with a junior colleague at work. If your child is grade-school age, it may be best to invite their input on when they most want/need your attention—you may find they are happy to eat with the grandparents but would rather have a snuggle and a book before their afternoon nap/bedtime, or help with their homework in the afternoon and read to themselves at bedtime. (Of course, boundaries are like a lakshman rekha until preschool—destined to be stomped over. It is and will always be difficult for a child who comes running to you with a new ‘painting’ to hear that she has to wait. As TSV’s 5-year-old puts it, “Waiting is hard!”) 
  • Before every work call (and specifically video calls), have a chat with your child to let them know you’re not to be disturbed for, say, 30 minutes—and expect them to honour this only about half the time. Equally, let the person on the other end of the line know upfront that you are taking this call from home, with a young child. When you do get interrupted, excuse yourself and quickly remind your child you are on a call (in case it’s an emergency, excuse yourself to your colleague and promise to get back asap). If it’s a conference call, it helps to keep yourself muted for the most part—it’s best practice anyway. That way, a very young person can stay in your lap (just put any fiddly devices away).
  • Have a few tricks up your sleeve, or in your drawer—a special toy or puzzle for when you really need the quiet, a pre-vetted video, a game-play app, a sensory basket.
  • Respect your child's boundaries of space and time likewise. In a sense, as Jain says, home is often their main (or only) domain and it is dad who is the intruder there! 

 

At the same time, not every boundary incursion needs to be dealt with in the same manner: 

  • If your child is very young, take a break often—you might try a Pomodoro timer to alternate work hours and check-in breaks with a preschooler (20 minutes’ work, then 5-10 minutes with your child to sit together and snuggle, play a small game, do some colouring); for primary and middle-school kids, schedule an hour of work while they work on their homework or projects, and then take 20 minutes to review or reinforce, or just chat (you’re teaching them great working habits too, as concentration for learning works the same way). 
  • Use their snack breaks as your coffee/chai time in the balcony, with your child. Trust us—you will get back to work with renewed vigour and refreshed (scientists tell us your brain sustains peak productivity for only that long anyway). 
  • Music, laughter and exercise breaks will boost your brain as well.

  •  

    More tips for WFH–life balance:

    PSA: What is urgent to your child can be substantially different to what you consider important. Every time your child comes running, judge the magnitude of the issue to your child. Sometimes you drop what you are doing, sometimes your child has to wait, sometimes that interruption doesn’t get your attention at all. 

      • Make your weekends distinct. When every day is a day at home, it helps to create boundaries between your working week and your solely
      • Wait, did you say you work through the weekend? Stop! Take a weekly break—you can choose a day other than Saturday/Sunday too. Take at least a couple of half days each week. 
      • Find your me time. It is easy to feel torn down the middle between family and work, and get cabin fever in the bargain. Step out to count the stars or catch up on Netflix or Kindle after the kids are in bed, or go do a surya namaskar alone or read the newspaper first thing. Schedule check-in calls with friends like you do con calls for work. Establish an afternoon quiet-time hour where everyone does their own thing—together but independently. Whatever works best for you, as an introvert or an extrovert, find a way to recharge. 
      • Don’t be entitled. Remember that others who are at home are not there to serve you. If you want water, get up and get it yourself. If you want pakodas, go make it yourself, unless you have a cook whose job is to make pakodas.
      • Communicate: If things are not working smoothly at home, be an adult and have a conversation with those around you on what changes can be made. Perhaps you need to pay for childcare, look into a daycare at school, or have another family member take on specific parenting duties (maybe mama eats one snack with them, you eat the other; maybe she cooks with them and you do bathtimes, or vice versa; maybe you clean together as family in three bursts of 10-minute tidies through the day…)
      • Keep a small rollaway trolley/side table/basket next to your workspace to collect all the goodies your children come and shower you with, so they don’t clutter your desk.
      • When you take a break, move away from your workspace. Rather than invite your child or family in, remove yourself physically to a different space. That way, your brain recognizes you are back at work when you return.
      • Define the break: Remember, a break is not just a task switching endeavour. Going from writing reports to checking email is not a break. 
      • Limit your social media access during breaks too; bookend your workdays or take one midday social break.
      • Do not keep a snack supply at your desk. No, just don’t. Lack of commute equals less calories burnt, unless you are using that time to play squash, go cycling or swimming (some dads we spoke to do just that); plus, the kitchen is all yours and a few steps away. So don’t feed your inner emotional eater’s boredom or stress.
      • Grow your productivity: Put a plant on your desk. Water it.
      • Get house-husbandly: Learn to create meals and snacks. Learn to do laundry or mop floors. Fit those into your workday. Take the kids grocery shopping or running/biking/climbing. Be a role-model dad. (This one came as an across-the-board request from spousal parties; another one was to remind colleagues to mind their language on video calls with you!)
      • Have a holiday plan: Realize you may need to renegotiate boundaries and set up new schedules for school vacations. 
      • Learn to work hands-free: Teach Google Assistant or Siri or whatever other digital secretary you prefer to take dictation and recognize your diction. As a parent, you will need your hands free to hold a baby sometimes (a lot!).
      • If you have no desk, think out of the cubicle-box. Claim the dining table between meals, use the balcony if cool enough, retreat to the bedroom until bedtime…  
      • Crunch time? When things are desperate in a work sprint, explore local community spaces—be it a local coffee shop, the society’s club/lounge or a coworking space for hire.
      • Hold the baby, you must! If you have a baby or younger toddler, buy a baby carrier or sling; you will save yourself a LOT of headaches.
      • Find a dad network. Women have done this a while, so you may find yourself treated like a shark in the goldfish pond at the playground. Ask other dads to come with! Join WFH dad groups online or at least parenting communities that invite equal participation, gender regardless. At a pinch, start your own vlog/blog/group!
      • Be the present parent. Take advantage of your WFH status to attend PTMs, school performances and the like, to talk to their teachers about how your kids are doing at school. Use that commute-free hour to parent.
      • Avoid replicating your spouse’s routine! That way lies disaster. Be dad; don’t try to be mom.
      • Investigate  flexi-timing. If you have older children, ask your employer about doing longer hours 3-4 days a week in exchange for the rest of the week off. (Younger children might find too many schedule changes confusing.)
      • Take vacations away from home.
      • Delegate the supervision: If your parents are in another city, urge them to remotely babysit a half hour at a time! Most grandparents seem more receptive of sons requesting this than daughters, unfortunately, in our collective experience.

     

    As a man, how can I as an employer/colleague support my WFH colleagues better?

    First and foremost, have the attitude and will to believe that WFH is work—irrespective of gender. A lot of progressive, especially tech, companies are operating with this belief, as is the central government (at least on paper); however, a large number of working fathers are still employed with traditional companies where you are working only if you are clocked in. Be their advocate at your workplace. As someone who has done financial planning for large corporations, TSV can tell you that telecommuting workforces definitively reduce establishment costs, with negligible dip or even an increase in productivity. By all means, hire someone who can do this analysis and prove it to your supervisors independently. 

    Second, if you have the decision-making capabilities, leverage technologies that enable a productive WFH environment and also work for the in-office workforce. In 2020, there are a plethora of cheap as well as free tech solutions, and they aren’t rocket science

    Third, allow room for families in your work culture. Acknowledge children’s birthdays like you do your colleagues—maybe add it to a calendar and send them well wishes; ask if they need a half day on that day. Allocate (virtual) room for conversations on Slack or Snapchat about who cooked/ate/cleaned what and what funny thing the toddlers said today. Encourage employees to e-introduce their kids to colleagues (encourages empathy in both adults and children). 

    Finally, as an employer or HR professional, realise that supporting a remote workforce positions you as a progressive brand! If your stakeholders aren’t convinced, show them this.

     

    Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.

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