Recently, I was relieved to finally make good progress on a major assignment. For one brief moment, the only sound in the house was the click of my fingers on the keyboard.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the phone rang — it was work-related, and that was the time that all hell decided it would be a good time to break loose. The dogs, the kids, the UPS delivery person, the knocking-door neighbor, the whistling teakettle — everyone seems to know when someone important is calling me, who could use A Little Quiet Around Here, for Crying Out Loud.
After I restored the peace, I apologized to my caller: “I work from home, and it’s hard to keep things under control sometimes.”
That’s an understatement. I started working from home when my oldest child was an infant, and sometimes, I’ve succeeded beautifully. Other times, not so much. Here are four simple rules for maintaining professionalism at the home office even with a houseful of young children.
KEEP YOUR HOME LIFE AT HOME
Back when I was still an office dweller, I remember meeting with two sales guys who mentioned a colleague who worked from home. They referred to her with an air of judgment as “Banana Bread.” Turns out that during a conference call with her, she interrupted to say she had to take some banana bread out of the oven.
It seemed perfectly normal to me, but it bothered my co-workers. I realized that these two, who were not exactly kings of multitasking, were uncomfortable with someone who switched roles so easily. Was she working on the Chrysler account — the most important sales opportunity in the history of time — or was she baking bread? The idea that she could do both things at once didn’t add up to them. So, I learned to keep a business-only tone in all communications.
I might be folding laundry during a conference call, but I make a point to convey that I’m standing at attention. Nowadays, not even a wayward bird flapping in the kitchen can shake me during a call (true story).
GET THE “MEETING” LINGO RIGHT
While juggling responsibilities, I refer to other goings on as “meetings.” If I have to leave at 2:15 every day to pick up my kids at school, I say, while trying to set up an interview, “Gosh, I’m sorry, could we do it earlier? I have a meeting at 2.” If I promised to wrangle first-graders for my children’s school’s morning assembly, I’ll let someone know that “I’m packed earlier in the day, but my afternoon is wide open.”
This is best for both parties. Nobody wants to hear about the chiropractor appointment or the Pilates class. It’s either work or not work, and there is no need to provide any more detail than that.
DEFINE YOUR EMERGENCIES
A friend, who also worked from home, was growing frustrated with the constant kid interruptions. So, she did what any savvy manager might do: She held a training session with her tots, discussing what qualifies as an emergency (smoke, blood, police cars) and “how to interrupt mommy” (walk in quietly and lay a small hand on her forearm).
The very next day, she was on the phone with a customer when she felt the hand on the forearm. Her 4-year-old whispered, “If smoke is coming out of the kitchen, is that a ‘mergency?” Turns out she’d put some eggs on to boil, had gotten the call and walked away from the stove. She now had a kitchen full of sulfurous, roasted eggs, but her son had acted admirably, so she figured it was a win-win.
MUTE WITH CARE
I’ve gotten very adept at switching from “That’s an interesting point, Phil, can you say a little more about why you started the company?” to [MUTE ON] “You will never see the inside of a mall again if you don’t turn down that TV while I’m on the phone!” to [MUTE OFF] “So let’s start assigning roles and responsibilities, shall we?”
I’ve mishit the mute button only once, while telling my sobbing one-year-old “I love you, honey.” My client didn’t love that, but what can you do?
Lately, with the kids older, I find that I use the mute button more for the dogs than the kids, but I still keep quiet about what’s going on at home. And, sure, I’d love to get together to discuss that project with you. My afternoon is packed, but I’m wide open in the morning.
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer whose byline has appeared in The Line, Minnesota Parent, Edible Twin Cities and MIX. She’s also a copywriter who develops interactive content for General Mills, Jennie-O and other brands. Read more of her blog at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.