CPA INSIDER

Balancing work and parenting when everyone’s home

Family communication and schedules can help keep everyone on track during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Sarah Ovaska

No one expected a novel coronavirus to sweep the globe this year and confine us to our homes in hopes of stopping its spread.

But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic this spring and the ensuing public health crisis has left many CPAs, in addition to other professionals, working from home, often while caring for their children.  

There's no guidebook on how to do this, and many are just winging it from day to day, a tactic that children's health experts say is OK during this unprecedented time.

Here's how several CPAs are dealing with the unexpected challenges of being both a stay-at-home parent and a work-from-home employee at the same time.

Talk to your children in age-appropriate ways. Many CPAs have had to quickly figure out how to transfer workloads and routines to home offices, while others who may have previously worked from home now need to adjust to doing so while also caring for children. Children, too, are facing their own challenges with the unexpected cancellation of school, child care, and extracurricular activities amid the pandemic.

There are resources online about how to talk to children about COVID-19, such as this primer from PBS that emphasizes making children feel safe and being honest in age-appropriate ways about the virus and how it has changed everyone's lives for the time being. Sesame Street put up a health emergencies website with short videos about hand-washing and printable pictures to help the younger set understand the current situation.

The National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses also created a guide for parents that suggests making yourself available to answer whatever questions children may have. Older children may need help distinguishing facts from rumors about the crisis.

Adjust your own expectations. Aaron Clayton, CPA, CGMA, needed time to get used to the sudden changes the pandemic brought to his work life. Clayton, a South Dakota-based partner-in-charge of the communications and electric industries for Eide Bailly, has been home working with his three daughters — ages 5, 10, and 13 — while his wife, a pharmacist, is out of the house much of the week working in her critically important job.

Clayton typically travels frequently for his work in audit, and the stay-at-home directives gave him an initial challenge of figuring out how to work from a home office while juggling the demands of caring for three children.

He realized he wouldn't be able to dedicate a full day to work, or a full day to taking care of his children, and instead figured out ways to fit both in. Clayton made sure to set up a work station in a quieter spot in the house where he could stay on task when he does have time to focus on work.

But he's also accepted the inevitability of distractions and pulls away from work at regular intervals to check on his girls. He also makes time to step outside for fresh air and check up on friends and family.

"It's nice to be around more than you normally would be," he said.

Erin Roche, CPA, a team leader at Elliott CPA Group in Santa Rosa, Calif., also saw that work and parenting were not going to look the same as they did pre-pandemic. She accepted that her work productivity would likely dip as she added caring for her daughters, ages 11 and 13, to her workday.

"It's about setting realistic expectations with yourself and not holding yourself to the same standards," Roche said.

Be understanding toward employees. Firm leaders and managers should remember that everyone has different circumstances and realize everyone is doing the best they can in a situation no one was expecting, Roche said. It may take time for those with children at home to figure out routines that work for the whole family, and there will undoubtedly be a difference in the pace of work now versus pre-pandemic. Other changes came as staff moved to using online technologies like virtual conference platforms.

"It's a process and we're moving forward," she said about the adjustment to new processes at her firm.

Find routines. Having a schedule helps everyone — children and adults alike — get done what they need to during the week, said Stacy Shaw, CPA, business advisory services partner with Boyum Barenscheer in Bloomington, Minn.  

Her two daughters, ages 7 and 9, have remote learning projects during the day while Shaw works nearby and her husband builds race cars in a workshop on the family's property. Everyone takes a break midday to eat lunch and spend time catching up. They then have free time, more school and work time, and chores in the afternoon before the whole family has dinner and spends time together in the evening.

"I do feel the schedule has been very important to them, because they have so many other changes coming at them with the closure of school," Shaw said of her daughters. It helps her meet her work demands, too, and cuts down on questions and wasted time because everyone knows what they're expected to do.

Figure out systems that work. Every family Is learning this on the fly, and a few interrupted virtual staff meetings are likely before a rhythm is set.

If your children are older, talk with them about your work responsibilities and when it's OK to ask for help getting a snack or with schoolwork, said Roche, whose husband is still working outside the home.

Her daughters now understand, after a few earlier missteps, that when Roche is wearing her headset, she's on a work call and not available at that moment to deal with minor issues.

But make sure you allow for interruptions from children that would fall into the "major incident" category. Roche wants her girls to know they can still come to her if there's a more urgent issue an adult needs to help with. Talking ahead of time about what those situations would be can help avoid unnecessary interruptions.

Those with younger children in need of constant supervision or care may not be able to set such boundaries. CPAs in that stage of family life may need to schedule important client calls during nap times, or trade off working hours if another parent is working in the home.

Communicate with clients. It's been important for Roche and other leaders at her firm to let clients know they are still available, but that remote working means things won't operate the same way, especially as many at the firm are balancing child care with work.

"Things are a little different; it's not going to be exactly the same," Roche said. "We're making sure we're not retreating into a cave incommunicado."

Having that proactive communication with clients has helped them understand, and also makes clear that she and her colleagues are doing everything they can to meet clients' needs in this unprecedented scenario. Most clients are more than understanding and are facing the same challenges themselves, she said.  

Appreciate the opportunities. While it may be more challenging to get work done while guiding children through their schoolwork, having everyone under one roof as they manage the change to remote work, distance learning, and social distancing leads to family bonding as well.

Right before a stay-at-home order was issued where she lives, Shaw injured her ankle and knee downhill skiing and is now in a wheelchair at home, balancing work with parenting amid the pandemic.

Having her daughters at home has helped lift Shaw's mood and made it a bit easier to juggle everything on her plate. "I am feeling so very blessed to have the whole family here now to help me," she said.

Getting through this pandemic has not been easy for CPAs who may be stretched thin from balancing work and child care in the midst of the public health crisis. But by remaining flexible, they will be able to get through this unprecedented, and temporary, set of challenges.

— Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA senior editor, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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