How easy is it to juggle being a parent and working from home?
“Live the dream”, “create your own freedom”, “be a stay-at-home mum and work”. We have all seen images of a happy mother with her baby in one arm and laptop in the other used to promote the benefits of working from home for “work-family balance”. Breaking down the barriers between work and home life so as to easily move between paid work and family responsibilities – or to do a bit of both simultaneously– seems like a good way for mothers (or, less often, fathers) to manage demands from both domains.
Certainly, there is a lot to be said for reducing the geographic distance between the workplace and home when it comes to finding more time in the day for parenting and domestic work on the one hand and paid work on the other. Everyone can see the advantages of getting a load of washing done while linked to the office online or being able to leave work and pick the kids up from just around the corner. However, managing work time in domestic space can also be complicated and stressful.
While working from home sounds like a great solution for someone combining paid work and care, research identifies some common issues and problems with these arrangements. My study of the working arrangements of women employed as small-business bookkeepers revealed sometensions and downsides that have been found in other research. This was the case for both self-employed women and for employees who often worked from home.
All the women I interviewed who had caring responsibilities experienced some negative spillover from paid work into their family time and space. However, this was much greater for women working from home than it was for those who went to work elsewhere. Certainly, women working from home generally had a lot more flexibility in their working time than those who had to keep to a formal workplace schedule, and this flexibility was important for managing multiple demands. The downside to this was an increased likelihood work would have to be done on weekends and in the evenings and at night, when mothers wanted to be involved with their families.
Flexibility can also have other disadvantages. While mothers who left home to go out to work relied on having regular, predictable schedules to manage their paid work and care, those who worked at home were often engaged in endless decision-making about how to prioritise competing demands. In other words, they experienced a constant and daily tension between their caring and paid work responsibilities.
Working from home offers a certain flexibility and can contribute to a high level of satisfaction with work-life balance. However, for this arrangement to work well, paid work hours need to be scheduled and contained. For people who do all their work at home, containing work also means containing the spaces in which work is performed so the door can be shut when the paid work day is over. Where possible, having a mix of hours at home and hours in a separate workplace may be important for staying connected. Perhaps it is a case of the old adage, “beware too much of a good thing”.
By Fiona Macdonald
Fiona Macdonald is a research fellow at the Centre for Work + Life, University of South Australia and holds a visiting appointment at the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work at RMIT University.
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