The completely correct guide to working remote with your family

You’re on deadline, and your mom’s vacuuming ... gravel? Here’s how to stay sane.

(Drew Lytle for The Washington Post)

While some digital nomads have the pleasure of working from a villa in the Maldives or a WeWork in Mexico City, many of us have spent the pandemic logging hours in a less enviable place: a relative’s house.

Maybe you’re staying with your aunt at her Myrtle Beach condo or taking an extended Thanksgiving trip to your childhood home. These aren’t really vacations, but they’re not your typical work trip, either. They’re something in-between, leading travel experts to coin cringe portmanteaus such as “bleisure” (business plus leisure) or “workcation.”

Working this way is appealing for people who want to make up for family visits they missed during the pandemic. But they can also be emotionally charged, logistically complicated and completely exhausting. To guide you through your next trip home, here are tips for successfully working from your family’s place.

Set expectations for your availability

You see your trip as a way to kill two birds with one stone, combining work with the perk of seeing your family — “bleisure,” remember? But does your family see it that way? Do they know you’re out of the office but not Out Of Office? Do they understand you might be glued to your laptop most of the day?

Unless they are already familiar with the intricacies of your job, you can’t expect them to know what your workday will look like during your stay. If you set expectations before your trip, you can avoid breaking your dad’s sweet, sweet heart by telling him you don’t have time to talk.

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“Communicating clearly so that the other person knows what to expect is super important,” says Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist who writes the “Ask Dr. Andrea” column for The Washington Post. “It’s really easy to see mismatched expectations and say, ‘Oh, they’re not spending as much time with me because they don’t care about me.'”

That may be particularly true if you are slumped into the couch wearing old basketball shorts — an image that does not immediately scream “rise and grind.” Unless you tell them, your family won’t know you are drowning in time-sensitive work. Soften the blow by communicating when you are free to spend quality time together.

Be honest with yourself, too

Just as Bonior encourages remote workers to set expectations with their families, she says, people should do the same with themselves. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t get done working out of your grandpa’s La-Z-Boy.

“If you’re looking to just automatically go and pick up your entire work life and plop it into your parents’ house with no change in productivity … that might be unrealistic, too,” Bonior says.

You will be more pleasant to be around if you are not stressing out over your remote-work situation.

Prepare for a barrage of distractions

The vacuum. The blender. The morbid updates on the latest friend-of-a-friend-of-an-acquaintance who died. The greatest obstacle to remote work at a family member’s house is the infinite gamut of distractions.

It is difficult to tune out the sounds of clanging pots and pans or fend off your mom’s loving conversation starters. But if you want to hit your deadlines and keep your job, you must find a way to power through the noise.

To stave off interruptions, you could invest in noise-canceling headphones or hole up in a makeshift bunker — a closet, perhaps? Or you could try something more creative.

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Exhibit A: While my colleague Hannah Sampson was in Florida working from her parents’ place, her mom, Linda, invented a simple-yet-effective solution to her distraction problem.

About halfway through her daughter’s month-long stay, Linda gifted her a handwritten sign that said “I’m on a deadline” on one side and “You can talk to me now” on the other. Both sides were decorated with smiley faces.

“For context, I worked from the kitchen island, which divides the kitchen and TV room and sits right next to the sliding-glass door that leads out back where my dad’s workshop/business is,” Sampson says. “High-traffic area.”

Keep your inner teenager at bay

Full moons bring out werewolves. Your family brings out your teenage angst.

Freud argued regressing like this is an unconscious defense mechanism; when you’re experiencing family stress and tension, you default to the behaviors and family dynamics you relied on in the past.

“Everybody falls back into their old patterns,” Bonior says. “You may go into a situation and immediately feel like the little sister again, or you’re the 'bad one’ who doesn’t clean up after themselves — whatever it may be, it’s very common.”

Assuming you are no longer a teenager, you will want to avoid acting like one. When the toxic fire of a tantrum begins swelling, Bonior says, it’s time to take a break and address your feelings. Figure out what’s really bothering you before lashing out at your well-meaning relative.

“It’s really important to try to pause and not be reactive,” she says. “Get outside of your own head and ask, ‘Was I too short with this person because I’m going back to my 15-year-old self? Or am I feeling cramped and feeling like they’re treating me like a child?’”

Instead of launching into bad behavior, focus on calming yourself. Bonior says you should pay attention to how your body is feeling. She recommends reducing physical tension — and soothing that high-alert feeling — by going for a walk, deep breathing and stretching.

Follow a script for defusing arguments

You know what triggers your family clashes: Intrusive questions, opposing political views, mask mandates, veganism. Whatever your points of contention, Bonior says, having a script prepared can do wonders when you’re on the precipice of a screaming match. Coming up with some clear (but respectful) lines ahead of time can help you dodge conversations that ruin everyone’s evening.

“It could be something as simple as, ‘Hey, I respect your opinion and I know you respect mine. We seem to be hitting a wall here. Let’s talk about something else,’” Bonior says. “When you have a script at the ready, you can intervene with a cool head rather than letting things get escalated.”

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Map out a good night’s sleep

You’re working on East Coast time. Your parents are living their best life on the West Coast. Knowing your alarm is going off before sunrise, you should make a game plan for getting enough sleep. Remote work — work anywhere, really — goes better if you’re fully rested.

Step one is to choose a bedtime and stick to it, even if it means you have to skip out on another glass of Cab with your dad. Step two is to anticipate the obstacles that stand in the way of your slumber.

If your parents are sure to blare “Yellowstone” at full volume right next to your bedroom, think of ways you can drown out the gunfire and cowboy fights. Ear plugs may be the trick, or melatonin, meditation apps or something stronger. These may double as a defense against your parents’ cacophonous shows as well as jet lag should you be remote working in a different time zone.

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Don’t treat a home like a hotel

Even if your family likes to dote on you like butlers at the St. Regis, remember that you are a house guest, not a paying customer. You may be treated to family hospitality such as endless home-cooked meals or having your laundry washed and folded, but you should contribute something in return.

Instead of sucking up all of their good graces like a gainfully employed parasite, be conscious of your place in their home. Show up with a gift. Offer to make a run to the grocery store. Keep your remote-work setup clean and organized. Make your bed. Volunteer to cook dinner. Be nice and leave a thank-you card when you leave.