One of the advantages of working in an office is that, generally, your coworkers are adults. They may pop their head in to talk shop or chat about the weekend, but they usually understand that when you’re on the phone and typing, holding up your hand is the universal signal for “kind of busy, can’t talk right now.”
When working at home (whether by choice or due to the pandemic), your coworkers may include kids, and, as a rule, kids are not as well-versed at the art of understanding that “now” is not a good time. They’ll stand and whine, raise their hand, jump around, or even do something like this:
A closed and locked door is no match for a persistent child, either. They’ll slide a note under the door or take it up a notch and text or email you. And when that doesn’t work, they may resort to banging on the door or barging right in!
If you had this persistent (dare we say, inconsiderate!) of a coworker in your office, you could enlist HR for assistance. However, when you work at home and your coworkers are your kids, you’re the boss, HR, and everyone else.
No matter why you’re working at home, how can you cope with interrupting kids?
Why Work Interruptions Are So Distracting
You may think that interruptions aren’t that big of a deal. After all, there is a pandemic happening, and everyone’s stressed lately. Shouldn’t you extend a little grace to your kids?
While some interruptions are OK (maybe even a welcomed break!), constant interruptions of any kind can negatively impact your work performance.
When an adult is interrupted at work (in an office), it can take them as many as 20 minutes to get back into work mode and focused on the task. That doesn’t mean spending 20 minutes thinking about getting back to the task. But workers experience something researchers call “resumption lag.”
When someone is interrupted, they have to stop, deal with the interruption, then get back into the “flow” of their primary task. But, in general, they can’t just pick back up where they left off. They might have to retrace their steps and reread something they already read or redo some of the work they’ve already completed. All of this adds up to 20 minutes of lost time per task, and with enough interruptions throughout the day, those resumption lags can really add up.
Why Kids Interrupt
When adult coworkers interrupt, it’s usually work-related. But when kids interrupt, it’s usually about something that’s very important to them right that second. And, of course, that’s part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that children aren’t the best at delaying gratification—like waiting for you to finish your Zoom call with clients to get an answer.
Both of these behaviors (and many others) happen because the parts of the brain that control these areas (like thinking of others and the ability to wait), haven’t fully developed in young children. In fact, the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25!
That means that a child’s “selfish” or “inconsiderate” behavior is normal even in the best of times. Since working from home during then pandemic certainly isn’t the best of times, these behaviors are amplified. Children are seeking reassurance, guidance, and stability right now, and in your role as parent or primary caregiver, they are seeking it from you.
How to Cope When the Kids Interrupt Your Work: 6 Tips
Knowing how and why your kids interrupt you is half the battle. But, when it comes to dealing with kids, you also know how difficult it is to get them to do the things you want them to do when you need them to do it, instead of what they want when they want.
And though you know now that their behavior is normal, the reality is that work still has to happen. As cute as kid interruptions might have been at the beginning of the pandemic, they are probably wearing on you. So, it’s time to start setting up some boundaries and bring kid interruptions to an end—or at least minimize the negative impact they have on your workday.
1. Manage Everyone’s Expectations
Start by managing your kids’ expectations. Be clear about what they can and can’t expect from you when you’re on the phone or a live video chat. “When I’m on the phone/in a meeting, you can’t bother me at all. You can do a puzzle, watch TV, or sit quietly, but you cannot interrupt me.”
Then stick to those boundaries! If they interrupt, ignore them until you’re done. But, when you’re done (or as soon as you can), revisit what happened. Did they forget about the rules? Was it truly life or death? What will they do differently next time?
At the same time, though, you need to manage your expectations. For example, if you tell your kids they have to be quiet when you’re on a call, it’s probably realistic for them to do that for a 15-minute call. But, asking them to stay quiet and out of your hair while you’re in back-to-back meetings for three solid hours is probably unrealistic. Assess what your kids can and can’t do, then adjust your plans accordingly.
2. Make It a Team Thing
Remind the kids that you’re all on the same team right now, and teams work together. While that means they need to support you by not interrupting, it also means you support them.
For example, while you can’t talk to them when you’re in a meeting, you can speak with them as soon as you’re done. Be a team player by sticking to whatever your game plan is and answering their questions—no matter how silly or crazy they are—as soon as you can.
3. Back-Up the Words With Action
The funny thing about kids is that they have short memories. It’s probably one of the reasons parents get frustrated when they have to repeat themselves over and over and over when explaining things to their kids.
Instead of getting irritated when you have to review the rules again, use visual aids to help kids “see” what you’re saying.
For example, create two signs. Explain to your kids that when the red sign is up, they cannot interrupt you at all. If they can read, writing “STOP” on the sign can help. Then have a green sign for when you can be interrupted and let the kids know that when that sign is up, they can interrupt you for as long as you can stand it.
4. Schedule Interruptions
Kids love schedules (even if it doesn’t always seem that way). They like knowing what’s supposed to happen now and what’s coming up next. Try taking advantage of that and create a daily “interruption” schedule.
For example, you might have a standing block of time for work from 9 to 11 every morning. Let your child know that during that time they can watch TV, play video games, or whatever works for them. Then from 11 to 12, you take your lunch break, and they can ask you whatever they want from the important (Where are the BandAids?) to the silly (Why are worms slimy?).
As you create the schedule, work with your kids to figure out what works best for everyone. Remember, you are a team, and teams must work together. Ask them what activities they want to work on when you’re busy, lest you schedule something they can’t (or won’t!) participate in. And try coordinating your schedule with theirs. If their favorite TV shows are on at the same time every day, consider scheduling your most urgent tasks during that time. It’s far less likely you’ll get interrupted then!
5. Practice Makes Perfect
While it’s not fun to work on the weekends, practice makes perfect. Take a few hours on the weekend and practice with your kids. For example, have a friend call you and put your signs up so your kids can see what it looks like when you’re on the phone and can’t be interrupted. The more often you reinforce what behaviors are and are not acceptable, the more success you and your kids will have during the work week.
6. Prepare Everyone
Before you start a work task that involves others, warn your coworkers and clients that you’ve got kids, and while you’ve been working on improving their behavior, they are kids. But, make sure you also take the next step and warn your kids before you’re starting a meeting or call so they know what to expect.
Giving the kids a two-minute warning gives them time to prepare themselves and get those last-second interruptions out of the way. Of course, you may need to prompt them (Do you need anything now because once I start, no interrupting!), but giving them the opportunity to ask for whatever they need before you start is a fantastic way to prevent interruptions.
Plan for Work Interruptions
While there are no guarantees in life, the one thing we can say with certainty is that having kid coworkers isn’t easy. Of course, adults aren’t always the best coworkers, either! But at least you can work with your kid coworkers and help them understand why they can’t interrupt you sometimes, and when they can.
Now, if only there were a way to minimize pet “coworker” interruptions…
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