graphic of a treehouse, woman vacuuming, sheet of cookies, and person listening to music with white headphones
Credit: RonyZmiri/Getty Images: Treehouse; PH888/Shutterstock: Person Vacuuming; Narisara Nami/Getty Images: Girl with Headphones; Debbie Smirnoff/Getty Images: Sheet of Cookies; Design: Kitchn

13 Brilliant Transformations and Tips from Families Working and Learning at Home

published Apr 7, 2021
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When the world shut down last year, parents and kids were faced with all kinds of challenges, and everyone learned (very quickly) that the idyllic place to work, study, and Zoom goes beyond buying the perfect desk. 

Some families are still fine tuning their spaces to this day. There are a lot of considerations to juggle, from tackling work interruption free, to strategizing the best organization, cleaning and meal-planning practices, big and small.

Now, as life begins to slowly shift back to normal, it doesn’t mean ditching these newfound wisdoms. (After all, we’ve worked hard to get to this point!) So, in that spirit, we talked to more than a dozen parents about how they coped with working and schooling from home, and which of those lessons, places, and spaces may stick beyond pandemic times. 

New habits

Soothe pandemic appetites with a mini buffet.

“Working from home with my 5-year-old daughter is challenging,” says San Francisco freelance writer Malaika Fraley. “I set her up with activities and entertainment, and yet, while I’m trying to focus on my laptop, she’s coming to me with a revolving door of questions and requests.” The solution? To minimize the interruptions on the days she’s especially busy, Malaika prepares a kid-style charcuterie board with snacks. “I fill the tray with small portions of carrot sticks, snap beans, sliced apples, tangerines, dried banana chips, shelled sunflower feeds, rolled-up Tofurkey slices, and Babybel cheese, whatever I have in the house that is fresh and healthy.” Now, Malaika says, her daughter still might still have questions, “but her unrelenting toddler appetite is sated.”

Your driveway makes the perfect scratch paper.  

Pre-pandemic, artist and interior designer Elisa Solignac planned to transform the garage at her Kensington, California home into an art studio. “This project was planned before the pandemic,” says the mother of three. “I just changed the initial plan to make it work as a school space.” She installed long, high counters, a communal table and dedicated a cart to school and or art supplies for each child. “The thing I learned is that kids move, and a change of environment helps. So, the fact they can switch places, be at the same table or not helps a lot.” Meanwhile she says, a garage banquette gives the kids a space to escape while they read. And when it’s warm outside, they open the garage door and expand their learning space to the driveway. Sometimes, she says writing a math problem out in chalk on the driveway helps, too. 

Let the kids do the cooking.

To minimize the heavy-lift COVID cooking at their Portland, Oregon home, Schoolhouse Electric President Sara Fritsch and her husband Oliver, granted their children (Winter, 12, and Penelope, 11) free reign in the kitchen. “Both kids have always been somewhat interested in the kitchen but being stuck at home with more time on their hands and more meals/snacks at home has allowed them to lean in a bit more,” she says, (perhaps because their recipes come almost exclusively from TikTok). “One of them is on smoothie duty most days, making and delivering smoothies to everyone at their desks. It is very common for the house to smell delicious around 2:30 or 3 p.m.,” says Sara. That’s when school is out and their daughter fires up the oven, often baking cookies and banana bread. “She loves the freedom of it — I don’t have the capacity to supervise, and she has loved showing me that she doesn’t need me, at all.”

Gadgets that will improve your day

Get headphones that mean business.

Noise canceling headphones have been a game changer for me,” says Mandy Roberson, cofounder of Magic Playbook in Greenville, North Carolina. “I’m usually working in our living room with three kids running wild. When they see me with the noise cancelling headphones on, they know I am working, and it sometimes helps to keep the interruptions to a minimum.”

Splurge on that cleaning tool.

With so much time spent inside (and a seemingly endless stream of snacks and meals being consumed) the messes are real and can be a distraction from work. So, when party-store shop keep Lisa Milestone’s family noticed her smiling as she zipped around the house with her cordless Dyson vacuum, her family started calling it her “boyfriend.” “Mainly because, I wouldn’t let anyone else use it or touch it, for fear they would break it,” she says. “And I’d be happily humming along as I cleaned with it.” Then, shortly after shelter-in-place went into effect, her beloved Dyson of six-plus years shorted out. “It may have had to do with me using it a lot at that time,” she says. “Cleaning is very therapeutic for me.” When the replacement part arrived, she vowed to take better care of her “boyfriend,” cleaning and washing the filter regularly. “It remains a great tool for me especially now with a baby that throws everything on the floor plus the cat and even the older kids doing school from home. I find pencil shavings everywhere.”

Signal the workday is over.

In San Francisco, public relations executive Emily Smith Greenberg implemented life-changing timers on her home office lights (using the Apple Home App paired with Philips Hue Lightbulbs). “When the sun sets, the lights shut off,” she says. “Of course, I can turn them back on, but it has been such a healthy habit to use the lights as my cue to end the workday and transition into home and family time.” Now, she says, she simply shuts down her laptop, closes the doors to her office and doesn’t look back until the morning. 

#Goal Space Solutions

Turn a tree fort into the office of your dreams.

Long before Sally Colwell, Director of Marketing at Salesforce Innovation Center, and her family transformed a dilapidated tree for at their Oakland, California rental into a fully functioning office, she daydreamed of it from the window of her cramped bedroom desk. The treehouse had been built some 30 years ago by the owner, and while Sally and her husband Bryce swept it out every spring for their two boys, they were all too spooked by the spiders to make good use of it. “When shelter in place began, we started to see the tree fort in a whole new light,” she says.

The whole family (and even a couple of friends) pitched in, removing the mossy roof, reinforcing the floors and extending the walls (to accommodate adults). Then, they added a tin roof which, she says, “is magical on rainy days.” They added solar power, a salvaged door, and custom windows, too. “The second we got a WiFi signal up there I immediately moved in, like fully moved, monitor, comfy desk chair and all. And just like a work of art, it’s a continual process of tweaks and touches. There wasn’t one big moment that the tree fort was definitively done. It’s a series of milestones, the roof, the windows, a door, electricity, music.” She even added plants, cozy sheep skins, and houseplants, naturally. The fort, a total of 45-square-feet cost $2,000, money that Bryce had been secretly saving for a kid-free escape to Paris. Yet, she says, every day since she moved into the fort has been better. “Being able to come down from the tree fort at the end of the day and genuinely ask Bryce, ‘How was your day?’ feels like a luxury. 

Make your dining room a communal classroom.

When shelter in place started last year, parents and kids were frantically claiming dibs on surfaces and nooks around their respective homes for any available desk space. Joni Lay, mother of four and designer at Lay Baby Lay in Atlanta, Georgia did just the opposite, opting instead for a single, communal spot for distance learning to reflects the warmth of a traditional classroom. “We turned the formal living room into a schoolroom, and we found that the high ceilings and big windows made it more inviting than it would have been if we had squeezed into a corner instead.” Similar to school, she used a chalkboard and dustless chalk to keep track of Zoom schedules at a glance. Incidentally, the key to designing a fun and functional school from home space is also an inexpensive way to help keep kids organized (AKA preventing books, pencils, papers from spilling all over the house). “When I was putting together spaces for my daughters rolling carts came in really handy for storing schoolbooks and supplies,” she says. “And the girls loved to organize them like they were their own cubbies.”

Turn to a dining room that does the heavy lifting. 

Davina Olgilvie, the founder of Wovn Home and a mom to an 18-month-old son, loved her open floor plan apartment in New York, until the pandemic struck and suddenly a quiet spot to work was the most coveted real estate in the house. “Luckily, we have a separate TV room, into which I moved a desk,” she says. “Something as simple as being able to close the door does wonders to ensure privacy and limit interruptions.” But her husband needed space, too and carving out a second makeshift office took some creativity. So, she turned to the dining room. “While the dining space opens up to the living area and kitchen, limiting privacy, the dining table’s large size is useful as a work area and a few key things helped to optimize the space. I placed a room dividing screen to separate and define the work area which helps send a signal that you’re in the ‘work zone,’ and using noise cancelling headphones when not on a call, helps minimize distractions in the open area.” To lend the area some multitasking muscle, she uses trays and baskets to store papers and pens that can be easily cleared off for meals. 

Use your camping gear as a sporty Zoom background.

In Berkeley, California, attorney Nick Jackson desk surfed across the house for a place to work for months. “He worked all over the house,” says wife Lisa Jackson, co-owner of Morningtide shop. “Sometimes at the dining room table alongside our 8-year-old, standing up at the kitchen bar counter. For meetings, he would take over our 8-year-old’s room and would set up his laptop on the dresser. After a while, it was too hard to keep the kids and dog quiet for all the meetings. He knew he had to get out of the house and the backyard was the only option.” The creaky, exposed tree house was quickly ruled out, but their six-person tent seemed promising. At first, Nick used it for Zoom calls but now he stays put if he’s jamming on work, reports Lisa. He bundles up on cold days and runs a portable heater from the house. “He has our backyard patio table in there, a rug, a lamp. It’s actually super cozy. He’s just missing a vase with fresh flowers!”

Allow yourself extra space to work.

Even in ordinary times, making an 800-square-foot bungalow work for a family of five is no simple feat. In COVID times, small spaces can be even more challenging. Kate Leonard, owner of A Dutch Life in San Diego, California was fortunate to have an attached garage turned 300-square-foot studio that she and her husband, an architect, normally rent on Airbnb. “When travel grounded to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, we realized how much breathing room the extra space gave us,” says Kate. “So, when we were allowed to reopen last summer, we decided to rent the studio only on weekends.” 

Eventually the couple bought a small desk to fit in the corner of the studio. “It’s amazing how a simple addition has made such a huge impact on our daily life. It’s a communal desk so it has to work for everyone. Our rule is that you clear the desk when you’re done working.” But all that stuff had to go somewhere, so another big project the family tackled was a hallway storage system. “It provides a place for each of us to stash our stuff,” she says. “School supplies, work samples, craft projects. I was reminded how important it is for everything to have its place, especially in a small home.”

Get away in the camper designed for getaways.

Inside their two-bedroom bungalow in Albany, California, Small Lot Co. co-owner Gaby Viglas and her husband Dominic Pinel, a molecular scientist, had a relatable problem. “My husband couldn’t focus on his work with all the noise and was frustrated with the girls constantly going into the bedroom during important meetings,” she said. It turned out that answer to their problems was parked right outside their door. “We truly had a turning point when we thought about using our camper as an office,” says Karly of the vintage Westfalia they’ve owned for a few years. “The van is parked right next to the house and we ran a long extension cord through the windows. We have not had to spend any extra money and it’s not the fanciest of setups, but he’s very comfortable, is out of the house and most importantly has a nice private and quiet space to work.” While Dominic will have to return to the lab post-COVID, Gaby says she’ll continue to pop into their camper van to work occasionally and to make quiet calls, too. 

Have a Plan B (or a Plan C) for your new cloffice. 

At photographer Bénédicte Lassalle’s 1,400-square-foot Oakland, California home, the work and school from home puzzle is (understandably) a work in progress. A year into shelter in place and the family of five — who’ve almost all rotated desks at some point — aren’t easing up on improvements. Case in point, her husband Nicolas started off working from their bedroom closet. “After a while my husband was tired of moving his camera away from our hanging clothes in the dressing room,” she says. “So, we built sliding doors to hide the clothes for his video conference calls.” There are more tweaks to come for his cloffice, she says. Her husband may build a custom desk to better suit the size of the closet nook. “My daughter’s desk is also too big for her space and would then inherit my husband’s desk.” All of this, she says, is the desk equivalent of a game of musical chairs.