Sunday, October 17, 2010

Banana Bread, Refugee Birds, Sulfurous Eggs and the Walking Ashtray: Four Steps to Home Office Survival

Last week, I was finishing a big project and finally making progress. The only sound in the house was the clicking of the laptop. Then the phone rang. It was a client who wanted to talk for a few minutes, so that was the time that All Hell decided it would be a good time to Break Loose. The dogs, the kids, UPS Man, the knocking-door neighbor, the whistling teakettle – everyone seems to know when a customer is calling Julie, who could use A Little Quiet Around Here, for Crying Out Loud. After I restored peace (the mailman had been arriving, and it was Boomer’s day, apparently, to alert everyone in a five-mile radius), I apologized to my caller. “I work from home,” I said, “so it’s hard to keep things under control sometimes.” There’s an understatement. I started working from home when my oldest child was an infant, and sometimes, I’ve succeeded beautifully. Sometimes, not so much. Here are my four simple rules for the home office, all learned the hard way.

Step One. Shut Up About Your Home Life. Back when I was still an office dweller, I had a meeting with two sales guys. They mentioned a colleague of mine who worked from home two days a week. They referred to her, with much venom, as “Banana Bread.” Turns out that they had been on a conference call with her and she had said, “Just a second, I have to take some banana bread out of the oven.” It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to me – I mean, she was at home and I assumed she had an oven there – but it enraged these two. I realized that these men, who were not exactly kings of multi-tasking, were uncomfortable with someone who switched roles so easily. Was she working on the Chrysler account, dammit, 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 was ludicrous to these geniuses. So I learned to keep my mouth shut about life and speak only of business. I might be folding laundry during a boring conference call, but I tried to convey the impression that I was standing at attention, pencil poised to capture the genius I was hearing.

I’ve gotten pretty good at this compartmentalization. One day last spring was really my finest hour. Our cats were going through a phase that involved stunning small birds (sometimes I began to think they’d found little feline Tasers), dragging them into the house through the cat door, and then amusing themselves when the birds regained consciousness and tried to escape. After the thrill (screaming and pants wetting) of the first dozen or so of these events, I grew calm. Success depends on the right tools, and my daughter’s lacrosse stick proved a perfect small-bird scooper. One afternoon I was on the phone with a customer, mapping out a delivery schedule for a series of feature articles. I drifted downstairs for a glass of water and came upon a bird in the kitchen, flapping wildly. Without breaking stride, I pulled the lacrosse stick off the coat rack, scooped up the bird, and flung it out the door, all while discussing the schedule quite calmly. Client happy, bird saved. I felt like Wonder Woman.

Step Two. Everything is a Meeting. If I have to leave at 2:15 every day to pick up my kids at school: “Gosh, I’m sorry, could we do it a half hour sooner; I have a meeting at 2.” If I promised to wrangle first graders for the morning assembly: “I’m packed earlier in the day, but my afternoon is wide open.” Whenever someone is trying to schedule my time, I refer to everything I find more important than them “a meeting.” No one wants to hear about the chiropractor appointment or the Pilates class, either. It’s either Work or Not Work, and there is no need to provide any more detail than that.

Step Three. Define your Emergencies. A friend of mine, who also worked from home, was growing frustrated with the constant kiddie interruptions. So she held a training session with her tots, discussing What Is 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 four-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 phone call, and had 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 all around.

Step Four. Find the Mute Button and Learn How to Use it. I’ve gotten very adept at switching from “That’s an excellent strategic vision, Phil, and I think we should articulate it in an interpretive dance, or perhaps a PowerPoint presentation,” to [MUTE BUTTON ENGAGED] “You will never see the inside of a mall again if you don’t turn down that damn tv while I’m on the phone!” to [MUTE BUTTON DEACTIVATED] “So let’s start assigning roles and responsibilities, shall we?”

I’ve only ever handled the button incorrectly one time, and I think, in retrospect, that it was a job ender.

I had, at the time, a four-year-old and a one-year-old child at home. I also had a boss, the Walking Ashtray, who used her German luxury vehicle as a smoking lounge, among her other darling personality quirks. Childless and carefree, she frequently called emergency meetings at 5 or 6 p.m., which seemed to be when the hangover had worn off and the nicotine had reached its peak in her bloodstream.

During one of these marathon calls, I heard Mary Katherine crying in her crib in the next room and ran to get her, after deftly pressing the mute. I brought the sobbing child into my office and patted her back while I tried to listen. Ashtray kept barking, “Julie, what do you suggest?” and I kept pressing and unpressing the mute button, trying to mouth the right business words in between the sobs. Finally, confused, I failed to hit the button, and, in response to one of Ashtray’s brilliant bon mots, the entire conference call heard me mutter, “I love you, honey.” Ashtray hated children, hated love, and, after that phone call, hated me even more than before. It was just a matter of time before she told me that I had to work full-time in the office or be fired.

Guess which I picked.

That was several years ago. Ashtray, last I heard, was selling real estate in Florida, which is such a fitting occupation for her that I couldn’t have invented it. And me? 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.

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