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What happens when the family system encounters the work system and the school system during a pandemic?

February 4th, 2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “What happens when the family system encounters the work system and the school system during a pandemic?”
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At the beginning of the first lockdown, we came together as professionals with overlapping interests in the new connected world, and networked society. Exploring the remote working experience we recognised that this massive organisational experiment was not just a typical shift to remote working.

As Adam Gorlick, director of communication at Stanford pointed out in his article, “what’s happening today with the Coronavirus crisis is completely different thanks to four factors: children, space, privacy and choice”.

We felt the opportunity had arisen to offer a space for study and thinking about those changes. Therefore, we designed an intervention directed at working parents in the UK, Ireland and Italy, aimed to support them in reflecting and learning about their new roles and unique experiences.

The project

Our project started with the hypothesis that:

Working remotely during the coronavirus outbreak is characterised by a loss of separate identity between personal and professional lives.

To explore this hypothesis, we examined the intersection of three systems during this lockdown period: the family system, the organisational system, and the school/homeschooling system. The methodology used is based on a psychoanalytic and systemic model, which explores unconscious underlying motivations and dynamics whilst taking into account the social and contextual systemic realities (Armstrong, 2004, 2005; Czander, 1993; Hirschhorn, 1992; Hutton, Bazalgette & Armstrong, 1994; Jaques, 1971; Miller & Rice, 1967).

The diagram below (Figure 1) represents our idea of the Pre-Pandemic Society (left), with parents and children negotiating a system, which mostly keeps the school and work systems apart, with the home system intersecting each system. We were interested to discover if the boundaries of the home/school/work systems really did merge during the lockdown (right), and if this was connected to a sense of boundary and identity loss.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The boundaries being investigated in our project

The participants – mostly unknown to one another – met on Zoom calls once a week for three weeks during May 2020 and came back in September for a feedback session.

The differences between the Italian and UK/Irish territories were remarkable, as were the participant’s journeys through Covid-19 first lockdown. Their fears, hopes – and all the emotional complexity that such a previously unnavigated experience can solicit – emerged strongly through the participants’ contributions. We co-created a reflective space, one which gave voice and meaning to their experience. In this article, we will touch on some of the themes that emerged in the study.

Working during lockdown: from unthought rules to uncertainty

The experience of working parents during the COVID-19 lockdown has been characterised by a complex contrast of emotions – a product of encountering a new way of cohabiting. Family systems are often characterised by a denial of unconsciously accepted rules of the game (Carli & Paniccia, 2000). These rules push away a ‘strange’ element for the survival of the system.

Confronted with the fast global changes which have characterised the Covid-19 lockdown, parents have had to find many new roles. Parents also have had to integrate these new roles very quickly. In a short space of time, parents have been ‘asked’ to form a new working-from-home identity alongside a new parenthood identity and therefore renegotiate the often “unthought rules of the game” within family relationships.

The challenges of addressing the complex demands of lockdown, and to integrate the work, family, and homeschooling systems, resulted in many participants expressing feelings of inadequacy. These expressions took the form of a swing between a sense of omnipotence and impotence.

This swing between omnipotence and impotence expressed itself during several sessions; we were confronted with the idealised bubble where the family felt defended against two key enemies; ‘the virus’, and also the fear of uncertainty. This sense of a bubblewas strongly brought by fathers in the IRL/UK group.

Lockdown messaging in the UK shifted during our project, and feelings of protection and idealisation may be considered as reactions to the change in demands from citizens, in order to minimise the spread of Covid-19. The initially strong message of ‘stay at home’ represented a norm, and evoked emotions of protection and isolation. In contrast, the latter message of ‘stay alert’ implies a sense of self-responsibility and self-authorisation. 

The challenging and changing passage as our participant’s navigated these demands was strongly felt in the groups. In our second session in the UK, (which coincided with the change in messaging), one participant’s drawing, illustrated the outdoors and felt very pertinent (see figure 2, below).


Figure 2

Figure 2: The illustration of the first lockdown experience in London

The tree seemed to represent a protected exterior bubble, and we made the association, in the group, of a representation of an empty city full of contrast in this sketch – a whirlwind ushering uncertain change, and an unbalanced and dangerous catapult, on the verge of moving. We felt the pain of the transition was well represented in this sketch; vulnerability was perhaps represented by the precarious stack of wood waiting to be knocked over by the pendulum/wind.

School at home

The school system felt quite different in the two cultures. Schools, even less than workplaces, were generally not prepared to shift their learning to online platforms at the outbreak of the virus. Teachers who are used to having students together in one classroom have to adapt their program, and teaching methods. They have had to take on new roles, and form new relationships with both parents and pupils.

Alongside this process of parents forming new roles and relationships, the school system and the family system encountered each other for the first time, forming a complex and almost unknown new reality.

We found that school cultures based on flexibility and openness were perceived better by parents than schools with more rigid cultures. Rigid culture schools created struggles in the schoolchildren, which were reproduced in parent-child homeschooling relationships.

School is not just a learning institution, it is also a system of belonging – a social system – and, as parents have struggled with integrating their working identities, so children may have found it challenging to adapt to online learning.

The age of the children also played a role in the merging of the school system with the other two. Families with small children talked about the difficulties of dependency emerging. Children mirrored their lost dependence relationship with teachers and their school/school friends, onto the parenting relationship. Families with teenagers illustrated a contrasting dynamic: the teenager’s independence was symbolised by participant’s drawing a closed-door; evoking a painful relationship which was difficult to name, and acknowledge in the group.

Italian mothers

In Italy, our project found that the task to look after the children and provide a system of belonging and transitioning was left almost entirely to mums. Difference between the role of mother and father was strongly felt in Italy in fact if in the UK & Ireland we had three men joining five women, in Italy the first meeting’s quota of eight participants were all mothers. The parenting/working structure created its own field of study. In the UK, in households where both parents were working, a culture of 50/50 responsibility emerged, in contrast to the heavily mother-dependent Italian culture.

Our first experience of consulting with the Italian group reflected a strong sense of emerging female unity. A culture was expressed, in which women are charged with family responsibility at all levels; the functions of nurturing the family, the transition in and out of lockdown, generally managing all aspects of home life, and overseeing the difficult intersections of the various systems of belonging.

Nature and unexplored desires in the UK parents

The decision of the UK government to allow people to go out for exercise made a large impact on the working parent experience.

Nature became like a fantasy ‘extra room’ in the house, but also a supporting system. In Ireland and the UK, the opportunity to spend some time outdoors allowed parents and their children to also find in nature, a new system of belonging where they could discover a new way to learn and be together.

We connect an emancipatory desire in the cooking practice to the ambivalence expressed toward the school system. Although UK parents initially ‘went along’ with schoolteacher’s home education requests, this receded. Parents became rebellious, taking ownership of their children’s education – promoting reading over homework, and nature over zoom classes; this put them in conflict with the online, formal homeschooling system.

Parents also shared some enjoyable aspects of the home-schooling experience, through the return to teaching their kids the basic skills of reading, writing and some maths.  The UK group also talked about their experiences – their pleasure of cooking and gardening. Both cooking and gardening are verbs associated with the creation of new products. In this way, both are activities which allow new desires to emerge.

One mum in the UK spoke of losing her FOMO (fear of missing out) – to describe this sense of freedom experienced during the time spent at home. Through the experience of lockdown where life outdoors the house was put on hold, participants could experience and explore their own personal desires. Jacques Lacan’ theory of desire (1951) describes the gap between our own desire and the desire of the others. It seems that distancing – from Latin distantia “a standing apart” – had allowed a sense of separation to emerge. Participant’s expectations of the external world had become separated from their expectations of their internal world. Through the process of participants exploring and naming these desires in the group, the UK parents got in touch with a previously forgotten part of themselves – the pleasure of creativity.

Time and systems

The concept of time and the word time itself strongly emerged in both English and Italian speaking groups. The etymology of the word time both in English and Italian (tempo) recall several meanings. In old English, tima – a “limited space of time” – defines the experience of the first lockdown, which was limited to a relatively short period of time.

The other definition of tima is “to divide”, which we can source back to both Greek, and Proto-Indo- European origins. This definition of time – to divide – is particularly interesting for us, as it explains the importance of time as space. In this sense, time divides experiences in and out of the home. We take time to go to work and come home, we spend time at work, as kids spend time at school. Time is the divider, a boundary between systems; as with shared work/home/schooling space, it is contested during lockdown.

If we think of the expression ‘work-life balance’ it normally means the balance between the time spent working or doing personal/family activities. The home normally functions as a base and shared family system of belonging, from which the family conducts their working and school lives separately.  

So what happened when those three system overlaped in the same shared space?

Our initial hypothesis was to find a sense of merging, a collapse of boundaries. We were interested to discover if the boundaries of the home/school/work systems (Miller and Rice, 1967, pg. 9) really did merge during the lockdown (right), and if this was connected to a sense of boundary and identity loss. 

If we go back to the hypothesis that time represents a symbolic expression of the emotional experience we can conclude that there was a sense of merging boundaries as parents were lamenting a loss of time, as constant family time became the norm for each member of the family. They missed time to be able to focus on their work but also the pleasure of spending more time with their children.

However, as systemic theories (Hirschhorn, L. 1998; Lawrence, W., G., 1979) illustrate, systems need boundaries to exist,  which separate the system from its environment. Our project illustrates how new implicit boundaries formed in the shared family/work/homeschooling space. These new boundaries show how all three system cultures adapted to change.

 Some families struggled with contested space needs; many participants spoke of the kitchen table morphing into a hotdesking and homeschooling solution each morning and afternoon.   

With roles thrust upon parents and children, new boundaries appeared, often unthought through, and not discussed/renegotiated. The resulting pressures caused both children and parents to sometimes act out in aggressive, repulsive ways. For some, this experience has been traumatic and characterised by feelings of impotence connected to their new/changed roles. This resulted in a loss of identity, and inhibited a new creativity to emerge.

Curiosity, exploration, desire and creativity: an invitation to reflect and implement

The Covid-19 outbreak has shaken our sense of certainty, opening us up to a myriad of possibilities in the new normal.

Our project highlighted four key findings:

  1. Working parents were given many tasks during lockdown. Some of these tasks have been overwhelming and emotionally complex and difficult. Parents had no option but to take on these tasks and do the best they could. On the one hand, this allowed them to discover new unexplored desires and new roles which can be resourceful if integrated into the new normal. On the other hand, parents may have been adversely affected by the need to take on so many complex roles. We can create a safe space for working parents to explore their ability to take on new roles. In this way, as organisations emerge from lockdown, parents can be assisted in their transition to life 4.0, feeling supported in taking up the new roles which they might need to find post-lockdown.


  1. Giving space to share and think can give rise to finding the desire to explore, and give life to a sense of curiosity to explore this new post-lockdown world. Being curious means that you can balance feelings of being e.g. frightened or weary/desensitised. Taking care of each other can enhance the capacity to face anxieties, and moderated reflective groups can help this aim.


  1. Systems of belonging have been squeezed and morphed into new structures.. What was taken for granted and simple (clearly defined roles, boundaries and tasks), changed overnight. Working parents lost a lot of their working identity in this process, but sharing these experiences in groups, can help parents to recognise where they lost their identity, and to see how others have similarly lost and refound their identities and create new belongings.


  1. Parent/child relationships have also changed. Both have met each other’s previously unknown identities. Children have encountered their parent’s working identity, and parents have met their children’s learning identity. There is an opportunity to re-evaluate previous idealised and omnipotent images (such as the perfect schoolchild, and the satisfied working parent). In this way, authentic and vulnerable aspects of the parent/child relationships can not get lost, as parents consider returning to the office workspace, and children return to school.

This experience helped us to understand that in order to meet lockdown challenges, it is necessary to design ‘adaptive’ changes (Kegan, R., & Lahey L., 2009), which are different from technical ones. Technical changes require well known ‘techniques’ (Heifetz). Adaptive changes require a change in our mental attitude, requiring us to move towards a more sophisticated level of mental development. Negotiating the emergence from painful lockdown emotions and experiences isn’t just a cognitive issue, it is a goal linked to the head and heart, and to thought and feelings (Kegan, R., & Lahey L., 2009).

To address these challenges we have designed a program of 8/10 session directed at leaders and working parents in organisations with the objective of creatively facilitating the development of an emotionally integrated experience of the pandemic. In this way, we guide organisations in the definition of new and re-negotiated rules of co-living, re-finding a sense of belonging in the organisation for working parents.

Our program will focus on the following points:

  1. Elaborate on the experience of merging boundaries in a shared and safe space.
  2. Identify new identities, roles and boundaries from their challenges and resources.
  3. Build new belongings and narratives of desire related to integrative identities.
  4. Share learning experiences with the whole organisation, creating new opportunities in the systems.



“Water is very adaptable, it is fluid and takes different shapes, this is what my husband and I remind us to be” (Italian Mum of 3, session 2).

This association gave us the image of fragility and strength at the same time. We believe that families, as much as organisations can be like water, and we are committed to helping identify how to deal with uncertainty and change, to form new opportunities and better, more adaptive shapes; allowing the water to flow, and the loaf to rise.


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