‘Stop apologizing – everyone’s finding this hard’: adland’s advice on WFH with kids

From new mothers to fathers with teens, to those in possession of a wriggly toddler – the last 12 months have seen parents around the world grapple with the realities of remote-working with children. In the second instalment of a three-part series, The Drum asks parents and guardians across adland how they’re staying sane (and creative), as they continue to juggle working from home with family life.

Ever since lockdown restrictions were first introduced last year, parents and guardians the world over have been charged with the Herculean task of balancing remote-working with parenting, as across all markets, schools, nurseries, and day-care facilities have closed, re-opened, and closed again while governments battle rising cases of Covid-19.

In the UK, there has been some respite in recent weeks, with primary and secondary schools reopening their doors (with restrictions) on 8 March following a third national lockdown. But across the pond in the US, many schools are still operating online, or only partially in-person. Meanwhile in India, only eight states have reopened all classes to pupils.

Therefore, the reality of working from home with young kids remains an ongoing challenge for caregivers, and in the fast-paced and chaotic ad industry, many have found the fine lines between work and life have become increasingly blurred.

Granted, numbers around working parents in adland are hard to come by, but a 2016 study from The 3% Movement found that 39% of women working in US ad agencies were mothers. Pre-Covid-19, 80% of mothers had considered leaving the industry to achieve a better work-life balance along, compared to 64% of fathers.

In the UK, a separate study conducted by Nabs found that 60% of parents knew someone who has left their role because of the pressures of the job. Elsewhere, a third (32%) had been made to feel uncomfortable by employers or colleagues about their parenting responsibilities.

While Covid-19 has doubtless enabled these inequalities to grow, the conversation has never been more topical as a result, and ad agencies have never labored harder to bake flexibility into their policies to support parents working from their kitchen table or sofa.

However, those with kids will know the best advice and support always comes from other parents. The Drum asks moms, dads, and guardians how they’re balancing working remotely while keeping tiny minds occupied.

‘Know you’re not alone'

Anna Berry, senior vice-president of client services EMEA, Essence has three-year-old twins and a five-year-old. She’s optimistic this period in time will ring in some fundamental change for working parents.

“It’s important that parents be vocal and ask for help when the pressure is too much. Talk to company leaders and be open with your team so that work can be managed as a collective.

“It’s only through speaking to people that you’ll find out you’re not alone in finding it a challenge. I felt as though we were in our own struggle bubble at times during the first lockdown because there was a reluctance for people to admit we could not achieve everything.

“There has been a lot more openness since, and while it can’t necessarily solve all problems, knowing you’re not alone is important.

“The honest and open conversations from the past few months mean that there is a lot more understanding of the issues parents face on a daily basis, and I think that just as hybrid working will continue, so there will be more flexibility for parents into the future, which needs to continue, taking into account school holidays.”

‘Draw inspiration from your kids’

Alexandre Girod, copywriter at BETC Paris, and his art director partner Julien Vergne are fathers to two daughters aged six and one. They’ve been trying to balance delivering creative for clients with home-schooling for the past year, but are sanguine about the lessons learned.

Girod: “I have never seen my role as a father as a constraint. Our job is to look at the world, the real world, and to find a creative way to tell it through a brand. So, living what billions of people are living is not a problem, it’s necessary.

“David Oglivy said you should test the product before writing an ad about it. So living the parents’ life, it’s like ‘testing’ the daily routine of people who you are supposed to talk to.

Vergne: “You should always keep in mind that kids are a formidable source of inspiration. Sometimes, when playing, talking, or reading with them, you get to open up your horizons and see different perspectives that can help you when creating.

“And let's remind ourselves that if we work so hard, it is also for them. I want them to be proud. As for myself, I never hesitate to show my older daughter my work in progress. I share with her some rough drafts, some storyboards. I think she has an interest in it, so we are lucky that we don't have a job where we must sit all day in front of an Excel spreadsheet.

“My advice would be to try to spark the interest of your kids and take some time during the day to be with them. Even if it's for a short amount of time, like 10-15 minutes. It’s beneficial to both parent and child.”

‘Set boundaries with your employer’

Co:Collective’s head of growth Amanda Ginzberg has found herself WFH with a newborn and a puppy amid lockdown in New York. She plans her days hour by hour and ends up working a lot of “odd hours” and taking breaks as and when needed.

“When I returned from maternity leave in January, I also took on a new and bigger role at work. Co:collective has been deeply supportive as I turn up to meetings with a baby in hand. In fact, the agency has given me more grace and empathy than I have given myself. The feelings that you are not doing enough are deeply culturally ingrained, especially as a new mom.

“Right now, the boundaries between the personal and professional are blurred in a positive way (turning up to a Zoom call with a baby, for example!) but boundaries are still important, so set them. Make bedtime a sacred time. Everyone understands. And most importantly: give yourself a break. We are all doing the best we can.”

‘Be honest with yourself about what is achievable’

Khadija Kapacee is the founder and managing Director at Edit Brand Studio. She has two young kids and says it’s important to be open with your employer and yourself if you’re going to be productive while WFH with kids.

“Talk to your employer and be honest about your situation so they can support you in the way that works best for you. Juggling work and childcare is an intense but survivable experience with a bit of planning, a very flexible attitude, and compassion for yourself and from others.

Don’t overburden yourself, this is not a normal time. Be honest with yourself about what is achievable - you can’t do it all in one go, so do what you can and manage your time in a way that works for you.

One quote that’s really helped me get through this is ‘The only constant in life is change’ It’s not the changes that dictate your life but how you handle those changes and disruptions. It’s also amazing how we each have our own resilience and ability to recover from them. When all this is ‘over’, we will look back and feel a sense of accomplishment because we survived.

“And a common theme that many peers and clients have said is we’re all just doing our best. As long as the wifi works and the snacks don’t run out, I think we’ll be OK.”

‘Practice patience and pragmatism’

Paul Evans is chief executive at TV data and analytics firm Adgile. For the past few months he and his wife Donna have been home-schooling their seven-year old son Bowen, who has autism.

“Home-schooling is an unenviable challenge for any family, and we noticed that as Bowen moved from year one to year two over the course of different lockdown windows, that the commitment required started to resemble a near full school day, from 9am – 3pm.

“My wife and I took turns with different classes and schoolwork over the course of a day. I’m lucky in that my work has afforded me the flexibility to pick up things up, with my meeting commitments to the business (based in Australia) being very early and late in the UK day.

“My advice to other parents is simple: don’t feel like you need to be super-human, just be human. Do what you can.

“We have been lucky in many ways including flexible working that affords us to help Bowen learn at home, a great school with brilliant online resources, and a kid that – allowing for the challenges of autism – has been positive, resilient, and fun.

“But in all this, we’ve learned so much as well – patience and pragmatism for me particularly. Bowen will push us to the limits of tolerance at times, so we try to stay calm and relaxed, not adding any unnecessary pressure to over-deliver on lessons.

“We feel that, between us, we’ve hit a sweet spot of support and wellbeing for ourselves and Bo. Better still, I’ve seen more of Bowen over the past year than I would have done without lockdown – I’m kind of grateful for the experience.”

‘Your diary is non-negotiable’

RGA’s executive strategy director Nicole Armstrong had a baby amid the pandemic. She says the agency has been flexible with her and other colleagues in the same situation and created a more comfortable environment as she works out the whole motherhood thing.

“I absolutely love what I do and before I became a mom, I was able to devote everything to my career, but I physically cannot do that now. My work routine has had to evolve to cater to our new routine.

“There will always be a certain amount of guilt involved as a working mum, but in reality, I cannot give everyone everything and I have to be realistic. I am also extremely lucky to have a relationship with my husband where we are truly equal participants in our daughter’s life.

“I’m still figuring it all out myself, but the advice I am trying to give to myself is don’t try to be perfect all the time. Embrace being real about the situation and the duality of your role as a professional and a mom.

“I’ve also had to be really firm about setting expectations and being confident to see them through consistently. For example, I pick my daughter up from nursery every Tuesday and Thursday at 4:30 pm – this is a non-negotiable in my diary. I won’t accept a meeting at 5 pm on those days as a blanket rule.”

‘Stop saying sorry’

Ben Middleton, chief creative officer, and co-founder at Creature has been caught in the “daily emotional seesaw” of trying to wrangle young kids while dreaming up campaigns for clients. He offers those in the same boat some practical advice.

“Put simply, I’d say; Stop apologizing. I’ve been on so many Zoom calls (both internally and externally) where people have (because they’re professional people) felt the need to apologise as their live-streamed rectangle has descending into chaos.

“Everyone is finding this hard; everyone knows this isn’t ideal and everyone knows that parents are coping with this in a multitude of different ways. Anyone who doesn’t show empathy for the huge challenges that parents are dealing with should take a long hard look at themselves.”

‘Look up and look ahead’

Nicola Kemp is editorial director at Creative Brief. Her five and seven-year-olds have recently returned to school. Her employer introduced longer lunch breaks and an extra half-day to support all staff throughout lockdown 3.0 and she is hopeful we come out of the other side of the pandemic with a greater understanding of the needs of working parents.

“I salute anyone attempting that most impossible of asks; attempting to work from home, while also homeschooling young children because fundamentally it's an impossible task. I say that as a privileged middle-class white woman, with a husband carrying the lion’s share of the home-schooling load, at a supportive and progressive employer.

It is without question the most relentless, rewarding, frustrating, and resilience-testing experience of my working life. My two new colleagues; who are seven and five are unpredictable and astonishing in equal measure. I’ve learned so much from them daily (still perplexed by fronted adverbials though).

“We’ve had good days and bad, but no two days have been the same. The working day has become rubber-sided and exhausting in equal measure, punctuated by frogs on Zoom calls, requests for snacks, and immense gratitude for being able to be at home with them and protect the NHS.

“For me, the key to coming out of the other side of this is for employers and individuals alike to recognize the importance of looking up and looking ahead and not judging ourselves or each other on the impossible set of circumstances we have faced over the past months. Keep going; there is light at the end of this long tunnel.”

‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’

EP+Co’s chief client officer Kat Shafer is a mother to two young girls. Her advice from her New York apartment is to take care of yourself first and foremost.

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on others. Take care of yourself and don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. Lean on your support system to help share the burden or just to give you a break.

“This has been a wake-up call for me, and I hope for adland too. I love the energy I glean from the people I work with and the clients I work for, and I miss the in-person interaction. But I recognize that my balance of home vs away was off-kilter.

I want to be back in person with my colleagues and clients (without a mask on), but I would like to see a post-pandemic world that encourages a better balance of time spent in an office space versus a home office.”